Quinoa: Give This Grain a Try
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Quinoa: Give This Grain a Try

Never heard of quinoa? This healthy grain is rich in protein and is gluten-free. Here, learn all about quinoa's health benefits, plus get a quinoa recipe to try.

What Is Quinoa?

What It Is: Quinoa is not technically a grain. "It is a seed of the goosefoot plant. The seeds are small, flat, and oval, resembling a mix of sesame seed and millet. When cooked, the seed transforms into an interesting shape. The outer germ twists outward to form a small white 'tail' that is attached to the kernel. This gives the cooked grain a circular shape," says Anne VanBeber, PhD, RD, LD, associate professor and chair of the department of nutritional sciences at Texas Christian University.

Quinoa has been a staple food among natives of the South American Andes for about 5,000 years. "It was considered sacred by the Incas, who called it the 'mother grain,'" says VanBeber.

Texture: When cooked, the inner part of the grain is soft, plump, and tender, while the "tail" is slightly crunchy and chewy.

Tastes Like: Before quinoa is cooked, it must be rinsed to remove the soapy saponin resin that coats the seed and imparts a bitter taste. Just put the raw quinoa in a colander and rinse with cool water. Cooked quinoa has a nutty, "earthy" flavor. "Its flavor is distinctive rather than bland and will dominate anything it is used in," says Carol Fenster, PhD, author of Gluten-Free Quick & Easy (Avery/Penguin Group, 2007), www.GlutenFreeQuickandEasy.com.

Nutritional Information: (1/4 cup uncooked) 159 calories, 2.47g fat, 9.76g carbs, 2.5g dietary fiber, 5.57g protein.

Nutrients: (Daily values are based on 1/4 cup uncooked.) Quinoa contains a high concentration of lysine, an essential amino acid usually found in low concentrations in other grains, such as rice. "Quinoa also contains a high concentration of the amino acids cystine and methionine, which are usually low in beans. Thus, quinoa pairs nutritionally well with beans," says VanBeber. Protein content of quinoa is 12 to18 percent. A 4-ounce serving will provide a child's protein needs for one day. Quinoa is also a good food source of calcium, manganese, vitamin E, heart-healthy B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and vitamin B6) and insoluble fiber. Additionally, quinoa is a source of omega-3 fatty acids, and it is considered high in fat compared with other grains. Finally, it has some powerful, important minerals, including 3.93mg of iron (almost 22 percent of daily value), 89mg of magnesium (also 22 percent of daily value), 314mg of potassium (9 percent of daily value), 0.348mg of copper (17.5 percent of daily value), and 1.4mg of zinc (almost 9.35 percent of daily value). Because of the high fat content, quinoa seeds should be stored in the refrigerator and used within one year of purchase.

Health Perks: "Quinoa is considered a complete protein, because it contains all eight essential amino acids. Most grains are lacking in at least one amino acid," says VanBeber. This makes it a good protein source for those on a vegetarian or vegan diet. "It is also being tested in research laboratories as a possible way to curb hunger and alleviate protein malnutrition in underdeveloped countries. Researchers at Brigham Young University have developed a quinoa cookie that has shown promising flavor appeal when fed to Bolivian children," she adds. Plus, quinoa is gluten-free.

Best Served or Cooked With: Quinoa can be boiled into a savory pilaf or added to soups, stews, or casseroles as a more nutritious substitute for rice. It can also be eaten as a sweet breakfast cereal. "Not only is quinoa delicious eaten as a hot grain, it can be a tasty addition to cold vegetable salads or bean/grain salads. Quinoa can also be ground into a nutritious flour," says VanBeber. It can be substituted in a recipe for rice, couscous, millet, barley, or any other grain.

Healthy Quinoa Recipe

Quinoa Tabbouleh

Serves 4

To cook quinoa

1 teaspoon canola oil

1 cup uncooked quinoa, rinsed twice

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 can (14.5 ounces) or 1 3/4 cups gluten-free, low-sodium chicken broth, such as Swanson Natural Goodness

3/4 cup water


1/4 cup shelled raw pumpkin seeds

1 English (hothouse) cucumber, unpeeled and finely diced

3 green onions, thinly sliced

1 small red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and finely diced

1 small yellow bell pepper, cored, seeded, and finely diced

1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

1/4 cup chopped fresh mint

1/4 cup crumbled feta cheese (optional)

Dressing and Garnish

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar or rice vinegar

1/4 teaspoon table salt

1/8 teaspoon white pepper

Fresh mint or parsley sprigs for garnish

Most of the quinoa we buy today has already been rinsed to rid it of the bitter saponin coating, particularly if it is from www.bobsredmill.com, www.quinoa.com, www.quinoa.net, or imported through Inca Organics. If you're not sure about the source, rinse it in a sieve until the water runs clear. Saponin, a natural coating that wards off birds and insects, won't hurt humans, but the quinoa tastes better without it.


1. Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat and toast the quinoa about 4 minutes, shaking the skillet occasionally, until the seeds are light golden brown.

2. Add the chicken broth and water, reduce the heat to low, and cook 15 to 20 minutes, covered, or until the quinoa is tender. Remove from heat and cool 10 minutes. Drain the quinoa well.

3. Combine the cooked quinoa and all tabbouleh ingredients except feta cheese in a large serving bowl.

4. Combine the dressing ingredients (except fresh mint or parsley) in screw-top jar and shake vigorously to blend. Pour over quinoa mixture and toss until all the ingredients are thoroughly coated. Cover the bowl and refrigerate 4 hours. Let stand at room temperature 20 minutes before serving. Toss with the feta cheese and garnish with fresh mint or parsley, if desired, just before serving.

Recipe Nutrition: (1 Serving) 370 calories, 16g fat, 50g carbs, 5g fiber,13g protein, 56mg sodium.

Healthy recipe source: Carol Fenster, PhD, author of Gluten-Free Quick & Easy (Avery/Penguin Group, 2007), www.GlutenFreeQuickandEasy.com.

Charles Stuart Platkin is a nutrition and public health advocate, founder and editor of DietDetective.com, the health and fitness network, and author of The Diet Detective's Calorie Bargain Bible. Copyright 2008 by Charles Stuart Platkin. All rights reserved.

Reprinted with permission from www.dietdetective.com, September 2008.