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Quinoa: The Super Grain

  • LiveWell360 Staff
  • September 30, 2015

As featured on Figure Athlete.

Quinoa is one of nature’s best kept secrets.

Well, at least here in North America it is. Most other parts of the world are in on the “secret” already. You’ve probably just heard it mentioned once or twice, so this comes as a shocker; but if you were to incorporate just one grain into your nutrition plan, it should be this punch-packing seed!

The History of Quinoa

Quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah or kee-NOO-ah) originates from Peru and Bolivia, in the Andes highlands. Native inhabitants have cultivated it as a staple food since at least 3000 B.C.

Once called the “gold of the Incas,” quinoa was relied on heavily for its great nutritional value. It was knows as “the mother grain” due to its life-giving properties, and was held as sacred, being offered to the Gods during the fertility ceremonies by the King each year.

The Incan armies survived on what was known as “war balls” — a mixture of quinoa and fat — as their main source of sustenance. It was believed that quinoa gave the warriors their strength and stamina, enabling them to conquer the tribes and form the Incan empire.

What Is Quinoa?

The grain itself is small and globular, and is the seed of the Chenopodium (or Goosefoot) plant. Quinoa’s actually considered a leafy grain, not a grass grain like wheat, barley, rice, maize, and oats. It’s a member of the same family as beets, spinach, and Swiss chard.

The quinoa plant looks similar to a spinach plant, with tall stalks that support large seed heads. Its leaves can also be eaten, similar to amaranths, but are not often commercially available.

In its natural state, quinoa has a bitter-tasting coating, called saponins, which is not very appetizing. In the U.S., most commercially sold quinoa has this coating removed.

Quinoa holds incredible nutritional properties, due to its unique growing area above 10,000 feet. This is the reason that quinoa is not as widely popular as oats or rice, since there have been few farms at this altitude.

Today quinoa is grown in Peru, Chile, Bolivia, and in Canada and Colorado since the 1980s, when two entrepreneurs, who were introduced to the grain by a Bolivian, sprouted the seeds there. It grows in a spectrum of different colors, including red, brown, pink, and ivory (the most common).

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What’s So Great About Quinoa?

Quinoa is known as the “supergrain” because it’s completely gluten-free, containing none of the allergens found in grass grains like wheat, rye, barley, oats, and corn. That’s right my friends, a grain without allergens!

It also contains an encyclopedia of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals — including calcium, magnesium, iron, tryptophan, manganese, phosphorus, and B vitamins.

As you might imagine based upon the list above, studies have suggested that quinoa offers a vast amount of health benefits. Including this grain in your diet can promote cardiovascular health and reduce the risk of certain types of cancer.

If you’re prone to headaches and migraines, try adding quinoa to your diet. Its high magnesium content has been shown to help relax blood vessels and prevent the constriction and rebound dilation characteristics of migraines.

Quinoa is also a good source of riboflavin (aka vitamin B2), the micronutrient necessary for optimal energy production inside cells — which has been shown to reduce the frequency of migraines. This is likely due to better energy metabolism inside the brain and muscle cells.

In addition, quinoa contains all nine essential amino acids including lysine (most grains are missing this amino), which aids in tissue growth and repair, and immune system support. This means that quinoa is a complete protein, a rare attribute for a grain to offer. Vegetarians and vegans, take note!

And we’re not even done yet: On top of all that, quinoa is low on the glycemic index, high in fiber, high in protein (12-18%), easy to digest, and is considered kosher if properly processed.

How Do I Cook Quinoa?

Just like rice. Use a ratio of 2:1 water to quinoa. So, for example, if you use 1 cup of quinoa, use 2 cups of water.

To begin, bring water to a boil, then add quinoa, and cover with a tight-fitting lid. Simmer for 12-14 minutes or until liquid is completely absorbed. Be sure to stir every now and then to prevent quinoa from sticking to the bottom.

Chicken, beef, or vegetable stock can also be substituted for water, in order to add more flavor. Keep in mind, the cooked quinoa will more than double in size, so a little goes a long way.

Once prepared, quinoa is light, fluffy, and has a hint of nutty flavor. The tiny cooked germs are creamy yet a bit crunchy in texture (almost like al dente pasta). You will notice that the grains become translucent and the germs partially detach themselves, almost like little corkscrew looking curls.

How Do I Use Quinoa?

Quinoa is a great replacement for rice or couscous in any recipe. You can also use it as stuffing or even added to your favorite salad, bread, or cookies for a different texture (and bonus nutrients).

 

If you would like to enhance the nutty flavor, you can take it a step further and dry roast quinoa before boiling by heating it in a pan over medium-low temperature for 5 minutes, while stirring constantly.

Where Can I Get Quinoa?

Quinoa is available at most health food stores in the bulk bin area. I’ve also seen it in some grocery stores packaged and sold in the same aisle as the rice and couscous.

Quinoa flour can also be used to make pasta, which is available in some health food stores or online.

Recipe Ideas

Quinoa Vegetable Soup
Quinoa, Apple, and Walnut Salad with Turkey Sausage (our favorite)
Quinoa Porridge
Quinoa Turkey Stuffing

And there you have it — the secret’s out. You’ve got the facts, you’ve got the recipes, so what are you waiting for?

Get creative in your kitchen, and if you come up with some yummy ideas of your own, take a moment to share them with your fellow Figure Athletes in this article’s discussion thread.

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