Adventures in quinoa

qunioaQuinoa is a newcomer to US cuisine, but it’s been a staple food in South America for thousands of years.  It does not come from a grass-family plant and is not considered to be a grain, like wheat or oats.  Rather, it’s the seed of a plant that’s related to spinach and beets.  The most common variety of quinoa in grocery stores is white, but it also comes in red, black or mixed.

Is it really a super food?

Quinoa is touted as being high protein, and more important, high quality protein.  A cup cooked has about 8 grams of protein and 222 calories according to USDA data.  By comparison, a cup of cooked bulgur wheat has 5.6 grams protein and 151 calories.  But, do the calorie math: on a calories/gram-of-protein basis, they’re equivalent.  So saying quinoa is higher in protein is a bit misleading.

Some other quinoa nutrition facts for 1 cup cooked:

  • 222 calories
  • 8.1 grams protein
  • 3.5 grams fat
  • 5.2 grams fiber
  • 2.7 mg iron
  • 118 mg magnesium
  • 318 mg potassium
  • 2 mg zinc

Bulgur wheat has significantly more fiber, but less fat and mineral content than quinoa. So superfood?  I’d say it’s a reasonably healthy food.

In its natural state, quinoa seeds are covered with a protective coating of saponins, natural chemicals which repel plant pests.  But they can also repel humans with an extremely bitter taste.  Quinoa is typically soaked to wash off the saponins before cooking.  Most packaged quinoa is now pre-washed, making cooking much less hassle.  Washed quinoa cooks much like rice, in about 15-20 minutes.

The high protein image makes quinoa a favorite of vegans and vegetarians.  Use cooked quinoa in casseroles, grain-type salads, or as a cooked cereal.  You can also use it to make meatless burgers.  Ground quinoa flour can be used in baking, but it won’t work at all like wheat flour.

Beware the quinoa health halo

Thanks to clever food marketing, quinoa’s health halo is being used to sell questionable processed foods, some with clear junk status.  A sprinkling of quinoa fairy dust does not make chips or sugary cereals or “energy” bars or cookies more healthy.   Quinoa is best used in its natural state: cooked as a grain and served as part of a plant-based meal.

Because it may not always work the same in your favorite grain-based dishes, it’s a good idea to check out some recipes designed specifically for quinoa.  You can find thousands on the internet.  Here are a few good places to start:

Food Network

Cooking Light


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