Quinoa – March Grain of the Month
Each month we feature a different whole grain on the Whole Grains Council website, including information on its health benefits, cooking tips and recipes, historical/cultural facts, and more. Click to see the full calendar.
March's Grain of the Month is Quinoa. High in the Andes, the quinoa harvest starts in late March, when farmers gather together for celebrations like the two-day Harvest Festival near the salt flats of Uyuni – a gathering of representatives from 4,000 family farms. By celebrating quinoa in March, we're honoring these timeless traditions, with information about this unique "mother grain."
Quinoa at a Glance
"While no single food can supply all the essential life sustaining nutrients, quinoa comes as close as any other in the plant or animal kingdom."
That was the pronouncement of researcher Philip White, in an obscure 1955 article on "Edible Seed Products of the Andes Mountains." While very few people may have read White's original article, in the last few years his words have been repeated on countless websites and in articles in newspapers and magazines, as quinoa has been rediscovered.
Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa, or goosefoot) is in fact not technically a cereal grain at all, but is instead what we call a "pseudo-cereal" – our name for foods that are cooked and eaten like grains and have a similar nutrient profile. Botanically, quinoa is related to beets, chard and spinach, and in fact the leaves can be eaten as well as the grains. It's a testimonial to how far quinoa has come in the last five years, that most people now know it's pronounced KEEN-wah, not kwin-OH-a.
Kañiwa (Chenopodium pallidicaule, also in the goosefoot family) is a cousin of quinoa. Unlike quinoa, kañiwa (pronounced kah-nyee-wah) is not coated in bitter saponins that must first be rinsed away. Learn more about kañiwa.
Quinoa grows on magenta stalks three to nine feet tall, with large seedheads that can be almost any color, from red, purple and orange to green, black or yellow. The seedheads are prolific: a half pound of seed can plant a full acre, yielding 1200-2000 pounds of new seeds per acre. Since nutrient-rich quinoa is also drought resistant, and grows well on poor soils without irrigation or fertilizer, it's been designated a "super crop" by the United Nations, for its potential to feed the hungry poor of the world. Click here to see more about growing quinoa.
Over 120 different varieties of quinoa are known, but the most commonly cultivated and commercialized are white (sometimes known as yellow or ivory) quinoa, red quinoa, and black quinoa. Quinoa flakes and quinoa flour are increasingly available, usually at health food stores. Click here for pictures and descriptions of the different forms of quinoa.
Sacred to the Incas, quinoa was referred to by them as chisaya mama, or the mother of all grains. Legend has it that each year, the Incan emperor would sow the first quinoa seeds, with much solemn ceremony. Although it's estimated that Bolivians in the Lake Titicaca area began to cultivate quinoa at least five thousand years ago, quinoa came close to disappearing after 1532. That's when Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish explorer, destroyed the quinoa fields to undermine the Incan culture, built as it was on ceremonies that almost all involved quinoa. Only small pockets of wild quinoa at high altitudes survived, and quinoa was largely forgotten until its "rediscovery" by the outside world in the 1970s.
Today, an amazing range of products are made with quinoa, from breakfast cereals to beverages. Quinoa pasta is popular among those following a gluten-free diet, and the grain is a favorite ingredient in granolas, breads, and crackers. Home bakers can try "ancient grain" blends or cook with quinoa flakes and flours. In the restaurant world, the National Restaurant Association named quinoa as the hottest trend in side dishes in its 2010 "What's Hot" survey of chefs. And the ultimate: we were even served up with quinoa shampoo at a major hotel chain not long ago!
Health Benefits of Quinoa
Quinoa is known as an "ancient grain," but to most scientific researchers, it's a new kid on the block. While the existing research on quinoa pales next to well-studied grains like oats or barley, the pace of quinoa research is picking up, and presenting some intriguing preliminary data.
Quinoa is a more nutritious option for gluten free diets.
Quinoa may be useful in reducing the risk for diabetes.
Quinoa helps you feel fuller longer.
It's not surprising that quinoa supports good health, as it's one of the only plant foods that's a complete protein, offering all the essential amino acids in a healthy balance. Not only is the protein complete, but quinoa grains have an usually high ratio of protein to carbohydrate, since the germ makes up about 60% of the grain. (For comparison, wheat germ comprises less than 3% of a wheat kernel.) Quinoa is also highest of all the whole grains in potassium, which helps control blood pressure.
What's more, quinoa is gluten free, which makes it extremely useful to the celiac community and to others who may be sensitive to more common grains such as wheat – or even to all grains in the grass family.
Click here to learn more details and to reference studies on the health benefits of quinoa.
Cooking Tips and Recipes for Quinoa
Quinoa has quickly become a favorite of whole grain cooks, because its tiny grains are ready to eat in just 15 minutes! You can tell when it's done, because you'll see that little white tail– the germ of the kernel – sticking out. Like couscous, quinoa benefits from a quick fluff with a fork just before serving.
Quinoa has a subtle nutty taste that marries well with all kinds of ingredients. But make sure you rinse it well before cooking: quinoa grows with a bitter coating, called saponin, that fends off pests and makes quinoa easy to grow without chemical pesticides. While most quinoa sold today has had this bitter coating removed, an extra rinse is a good idea to remove any residue.
Cooks can choose from ivory, red, or black quinoa; from sprouted quinoa; from Arzu (a blend of buckwheat, quinoa, beans, and spices); or from quinoa flakes or flour, as a starting point for cooking. One home cook (Denise M. of Tallahassee, FL) was so inspired by quinoa, in fact, that she sent this poem to the Whole Grains Council:
Quinoa, quinoa my favorite whole grain, boiled or toasted, seasoned or plain,
High in protein, gluten free, rich in iron and vitamin B,
Full of fiber and a nutty flavor, easy to cook and a pleasure to savor,
Overshadowed by couscous, barley, and rice, the less-popular quinoa is twice as nice.
It's fluffy and versatile; add veggies or beans, or make pudding, cold salads – nearly any cuisine!
I could eat it daily, again and again, this healthful quinoa, "the mother grain!"
To help you explore the wonderful ways that quinoa can be cooked and enjoyed, here are some of our favorite quinoa recipes from the Whole Grains Council website:
The following WGC member websites feature additional quinoa recipes you may enjoy:
Fun Facts about Quinoa
Here are some surprising facts about quinoa that you may be interested to learn:
Inca warriors ate balls of quinoa and fat to keep them going on long marches and in battle.
NASA has proposed quinoa as an ideal food for long-duration space flights.
The Natchez Indians, on the lower Mississippi River, may have cultivated a variety of quinoa.
Chicha is a traditional beer made from fermented quinoa.
A quinoa poultice or plaster was traditionally thought to heal bones, and Andean families have traditionally used the saponin-filled wash water from quinoa as a shampoo.
Lamb's quarters, a common weed increasingly sought after as a gourmet salad ingredient, is a cousin of quinoa.
Chenopodeum, the botanical name for quinoa, means "goose foot," so named because the leaves of the plant resemble the webbed foot of a goose.
In times of drought, when other crops in quinoa-growing areas fail, quinoa can actually increase its yields. The crop can thrive on as little as three to four inches of annual rainfall.
Thanks to Sergio Nunez de Arco of Andean Naturals for the photos and some of the information on this page.