You can’t spend time thinking about health without hearing about quinoa. The little grain-like seed has been hailed as a superfood. This isn’t too shocking either, as the tiny seeds are packed with antioxidants, protein, and nutrients. But, is quinoa good for you?
That question might come as a surprise. After all, quinoa is often called a superfood. It must be healthy, right? While that’s true enough, quinoa does have some less appealing features as well.
First though, let’s talk about quinoa itself. Despite how we cook it like a grain, quinoa is actually a seed from a plant native to Peru. It’s sometimes called a pseudograin or pseudocereal in reference to that fact. Indeed, quinoa is more closely related to spinach and amaranth than it is to grains.
Quinoa needs to be cooked before use, which normally involves boiling it. You end up with a grain-like dish that can be easily used as a replacement for rice in a variety of meals. While the flavor of quinoa isn’t always the most appealing thing, you can make some amazing meals using it.
Is Quinoa Good For Your Health?
The Benefits Of Quinoa
The Nutrient Density
Nutrients are the number one reason why so many people turn to quinoa. For one thing, you get around 15% of your daily iron intake from a single cup of cooked quinoa. This is an important feature, as it’s easy to be deficient in iron, especially if you’re following a vegan diet.
Other important nutrients include magnesium, calcium, potassium, and zinc.
The macronutrient content is impressive too. You get almost 3 grams of fiber and 4.4 grams of protein per 100 grams of cooked quinoa. These are higher numbers than most types of grain or grain-like ingredient.
As you’re probably aware, fiber plays many important roles, including helping with digestion and keeping you regular. The protein is relevant too, as it plays a role in many parts of your body.
Foods that are rich in fiber and protein also tend to be filling. They help to keep you satisfied and mean that you’re less likely to crave sugary snacks.
There are plenty of nutrient-dense foods out there, but quinoa stands out because it is also plant-based, low in calories, and contains a decent amount of protein. This combination of features isn’t incredibly common.
And, as it turns out, quinoa is one of the few plant-based foods that contains all of the essential amino acids. Most other plant-based protein sources are lacking in at least one of those amino acids.
It’s A Practical Ingredient
There are many nutritious foods out there. Quinoa shines because it is also easy to prepare and can be used in many meals. The simplest approach is to replace rice with quinoa, but that’s just the beginning.
You can get more creative too, like using quinoa as a salad ingredient or in a variety of ethnic dishes. As quinoa has increased in popularity, the number of recipes that rely on the pseudocereal has increased as well. There are now countless options to try, including familiar and unfamiliar dishes.
The Antioxidant Content
It’s not just nutrients that you get with quinoa. The little seeds also contain plenty of plant-based compounds, including antioxidants.
You’ve heard about the benefits of antioxidants, I’m sure. An antioxidant-rich diet is thought to decrease the risk of some diseases, including cancer. Antioxidants might even help you to live longer, who knows?
Two interesting ones are quercetin and kaempferol, which are both prevalent in quinoa. These fall into the flavonoid family and also have anti-inflammatory properties.
Quinoa isn’t related to wheat, so it doesn’t contain any gluten. This makes it ideal for anyone on a gluten free diet. After all, many other sources of starch contain gluten. Plus, quinoa is healthier and less refined than some of the ingredients found on a gluten-free diet.
However, if you’re highly sensitive to gluten, it’s worth looking for quinoa that’s labeled as gluten free. Such products should be regularly tested to ensure that there’s no gluten. The company will go to greater lengths to prevent cross-contamination too.
Growing Conditions Are Often Good
Most of us prefer food that is organically grown and isn’t genetically modified. While buying organic might not be affordable all the time, quinoa makes this easy, as it is often grown organically anyway.
This happens because quinoa is easy to grow, so pesticides and the like generally aren’t needed. Even if your product isn’t labeled as being organic, pesticide use should be minimal.
Similarly, you don’t need to worry about genetic modification. It’s rare to find genetically modified quinoa, so the seed should be fine even if the label doesn’t say non-GMO.
Why Some People Suggest Avoiding Quinoa
Quinoa might have a stellar reputation as a superfood, but the pseudocereal does have its dark side too.
The Carb Content
There is an ongoing controversy surrounding carbs in your diet. Some people claim that modern diets rely far too heavily on carbs, which spike blood sugar levels, contribute to inflammation, and increase fat storage. Others suggest that while refined carbs are damaging to health, complex carbs offer many benefits instead.
Quinoa falls into the latter category. It’s a type of complex carb. You might even call it a whole grain. As such, it won’t spike your blood sugar in the same way as a loaf of white bread.
Still, you do get roughly 17 net grams of carbs in a half cup serving of cooked quinoa. This is far too much for a keto diet and for many low carb dieters.
The ethics surrounding quinoa are also concerning. The problem here is that quinoa’s superfood status has dramatically increased demand, making quinoa a lucrative crop for farmers in countries like Bolivia and Peru.
The focus on growing quinoa has quickly led to environmental damage and an unsustainable focus on finding more land for quinoa.
This type of pattern also means that many farmers are focusing on developing this single cash crop, rather than growing a more stable variety of crops that can support themselves while also being profitable. It’s easy to see how this could be a problem in the long term, especially if demand for quinoa dies off in the future.
Still… there are two sides to every story. Farmers that focus heavily on growing quinoa do report high profits, which provides them with more money to buy food and support their families.
Most people don’t have any problems with eating quinoa. But, there are exceptions to that rule. Some people have severe negative reactions to quinoa, including stomach aches, bloating, and diarrhea.
One reason is the fiber. Quinoa has more fiber than most grains, so suddenly switching from white rice to quinoa, for example, would give your digestive system quite a shock.
Quinoa also contains saponin. This is an important compound in nature, helping to defend the seeds against birds. Saponins haven’t been heavily researched for humans, but some people are concerned that they may lead to digestive impacts.
Washing your quinoa before using it should help with the saponins. You can even buy pre-washed quinoa. This can save you time and energy, especially as the small grain size of quinoa makes it a pain to rinse. Much of the time, pre-washed quinoa isn’t any more expensive than other types.
If you’re still getting reactions, then you might want to pass on quinoa altogether. Even if you never figure out why you’re getting such a reaction, it’s always best to listen to your body.
How Do You Use Quinoa?
You’ll generally need to cook quinoa before using it. Thankfully, this process isn’t difficult. You simply need to simmer the seeds in water for roughly 15 minutes. While quinoa can be served as soon as it's cooked, waiting for about 20 minutes will give you even better results.
Here are some other tips that can take your quinoa from mediocre to excellent:
- Keep it covered. Quinoa should be covered while you cook it and also when you leave it to sit. This keeps all the released steam in the pot, making sure your couscous ends up fluffy.
- Stir with a fork. Once the quinoa has finished resting, use a fork to fluff it up. Doing so helps to separate out the grains, making the final meal airier. Avoid using a spatula or a spoon. Those utensils end up mashing the grains together and creating a denser meal.
- Start by simmering your liquid. While you often start rice in cold water, quinoa tastes much better if the water is simmering first.
- Use stock rather than water. Rather than cooking your quinoa in water, why not try stock or some type of broth instead? This provides you with extra flavor.
- Have the right ratio of water to quinoa. Getting this ratio wrong will give you quinoa that’s too dry or soggy. For quinoa, you generally need a ratio of 2 cups of water per cup of quinoa. The quinoa will absorb most of this water, so you’ll end up with roughly 3 cups of cooked quinoa.
- Rinse the quinoa first. Rinsing the quinoa removes any residues. This means less bitterness and a lower chance of any digestive reactions from the seed.
- Don’t forget the seasonings. These can be added while the quinoa is cooking or after it is finished. Either way, seasonings are critical, as they provide extra depth of flavor.
You can also toast quinoa before cooking it. This is done in a large skillet of medium heat after the quinoa has been rinsed. You should shake the pan or stir the quinoa every so often to prevent it from burning. It’s easy to tell when the quinoa is ready – it’ll start to make popping noises.
Does Quinoa Taste Good?
Many people do enjoy quinoa on its own. The seed has a subtle nutty flavor that works well with plenty of meals and ingredients. Following the tips above can help to make sure that the cooked quinoa has the right consistency and flavor.
Of course, quinoa isn’t served on its own all that often. It’s often used as an ingredient instead, so there are plenty of other parts of your meal to provide flavor.
For example, many quinoa salads have some type of dressing, along with ingredients like chicken, feta, or avocado. With this type of meal, the subtle flavor of quinoa is appealing, rather than being a problem.
Which Type Of Quinoa Is Best?
Three main types of quinoa are cultivated: white, red, and black quinoa. The differences between them aren’t dramatic. White quinoa tends to be the mildest and has the least crunch. It cooks the fastest out of the three types. It’s the easiest to find in local stores too.
Black is crunchier and takes longer to cook, while red quinoa is in the middle for cooking time and crunch. These differences are subtle enough that you won’t notice them in most recipes.
There isn’t much difference in nutrition either, so you can really just choose whichever color looks the best in your meal. You could also look for a rainbow mix, which simply contains all three colors.
Other colors exist too, including pale yellow and pink. These aren’t as common as white, black, and red quinoa, but can be used in the same way. Once again, you can choose based on the color you want, as the nutrition is much the same for all types.
Other options include quinoa flour, quinoa flakes, and quinoa puffs. These are quinoa grains that have been manipulated in some way, like ground into flour or puffed up to make crispy snacks.
You’re still eating quinoa, so the nutritional benefits are similar to the whole grains. Just remember that the flour will be digested faster than quinoa grains, so you may see a stronger blood sugar impact.
Still, quinoa flour is flexible. It can be used to make a variety of gluten free foods, including delicious pizza crusts.
Quinoa Vs Rice
The grain size and texture of cooked quinoa make the pseudocereal an easy replacement for rice. You can use it in many of the same meals. It’s easy to see why you would want to, as quinoa contains more fiber and nutrients than brown rice, and is much better for you than white rice.
Quinoa does contain more fat than rice, but this is mostly polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat. These types of fat are linked to many health benefits, including decreasing heart disease risk and improving cholesterol levels.
Plus, quinoa is exceptional for its protein content. You get roughly 8 grams of protein for every cooked cup of quinoa. This might not sound like much, but it’s more than most other cereal grains or cereal-like products.
As such, using quinoa instead of rice is an easy way to increase your protein intake.
For most people, the benefits of quinoa far outweigh any problems with the seed. Just make sure that you rinse your quinoa thoroughly before you use it. This removes any bitter flavor and decreases the risk of any stomach problems.
It’s also worth thinking about how you’re going to use quinoa. You’ll get the most benefits if you pair it with other healthy ingredients, like in a fresh Buddha bowl.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Quinoa A Whole Grain?
While quinoa is technically a seed rather than a grain, it is still often classified as a whole grain. This is because it has a similar nutrient profile as whole grains. It’s even cooked in a similar way.
The big difference is the protein content, which is much higher for quinoa than for most grains. This makes quinoa a powerful way for vegetarians to boost their protein intake.
Should I Soak Quinoa Before Cooking?
Soaking quinoa before cooking can decrease levels of phytic acid. This is useful, as phytic acid is sometimes called an antinutrient, which means that it may decrease the absorption of some nutrients.
Soaking quinoa can also reduce saponin levels. These compounds are found on the outside of quinoa seeds and can give it a slight quinoa a slightly bitter flavor. As such, soaking quinoa can make it taste better.
That said, soaking isn’t essential at all. Plenty of people don’t soak their quinoa and still get plenty of nutrients from it. Soaking the quinoa also changes the texture, making the quinoa soggy once it’s been fully cooked. Simply rinsing it is often enough to decrease quinoa’s bitterness anyway.
Is Quinoa Good For Your Gut?
Quinoa can help your gut, partly because it’s a rich source of fiber. This fiber is crucial for helping your body to process waste effectively.
Some care is needed though, as too much fiber can have the opposite effect, potentially leading to stomach pains and diarrhea. You’ll also need to pay attention to your body’s responses, as some people are sensitive to the saponins on quinoa or to other compounds.
Is Quinoa Flour Good For You?
Quinoa flour is often just ground quinoa seeds, so it has most of the same benefits and features as quinoa seeds themselves. This means it should help to keep you full, provides plenty of nutrients, and helps with digestion.
There is still one big difference, as grinding the seeds increases their surface area. This effect means that quinoa flour is digested faster than quinoa seeds and is more likely to cause a blood sugar spike.
What Can You Add To Quinoa To Make It Taste Better?
Cooking quinoa in stock rather than plain water is a good first step for improving the flavor. Many people also include fresh herbs, like basil, dill, and cilantro. Other possibilities include garlic, salt, black pepper, or turmeric.
You could also look for a seasoning mix at a grocery store, like a Mediterranean or Moroccan themed one. Mixing in feta crumbles works well too, giving you some creaminess and a hit of extra flavor.
Finally, infused olive oil is a fantastic easy way to add flavor. You can even make your own oil and use it with plenty of dishes.
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