Quinoa: Healthy or hype?

The rising health food movement has brought more diverse foods into our supermarkets. There’s now far more options for grains than just rice and oats. One of these newly-popular grains is quinoa. It’s so well-regarded for its nutritional benefits that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation declared 2013 the ‘International Year of Quinoa’.

But first thing’s first – how do you pronounce it? Well, it’s ‘keen-wa’ (not kwin-oh-ah).

You might have seen quinoa dishes on restaurant menus, bags of dried seeds in the health food section, or muesli bars made of ‘ancient grains’ including quinoa. So, what makes quinoa so special? We explore why quinoa is so popular.

What is quinoa?

While quinoa is used like a grain, it’s actually a seed and is much more closely related to beetroot and spinach. You can find it in either red or white type, although there are many more varieties than just two.

Where does quinoa come from?

Quinoa is native to South America, where it’s been grown as a staple for thousands of years. Recently, the rest of the world has begun to appreciate quinoa too, and now it’s grown all over the world. Most production still occurs in South America, however. 92% of global quinoa production in 2008 came from Peru and Bolivia.

How do you use quinoa?

Quinoa comes in all kinds of forms, including whole grain, flour, flakes, and puffed grain. The whole grain is pretty easy to cook, and can take as little as 15min. It’s cooked just like rice, in boiling water. It increases volume and becomes tender while keeping a slight crunch. It has a subtle nutty taste that goes well in many different kinds of recipes. Compared to rice and oats, quinoa has more flavour and texture. This can really liven up some otherwise boring healthy meals.

Cooked quinoa can be used instead of rice, or as a filling protein boost to salads and soups, or as a porridge for breakfast. It can be hard to feel full with a regular salad, but you can make a hearty yet healthy salad by adding quinoa and legumes (like lentils). Porridge is less of a goop and more of a crunchy, chewy breakfast when made from quinoa.

You can also use quinoa (cooked whole grain, flakes, or puffs) in homemade granola and breakfast cereal. Quinoa flour can be used to make bread and other baked goods or you could add the cooked whole grain into your cakes and cookies for a healthier treat.

There’s plenty of room for experimentation with quinoa recipes, so you’re really only limited by your imagination.

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Is quinoa good for you?

Overall, quinoa is more nutritious than rice, oats, and many other more common grains. Here are the facts:

  • Protein: Compared to other whole grains, quinoa has a very high protein content (15%) including high levels of all nine essential amino acids. This makes quinoa a particularly good food for vegans, vegetarians, and anyone who doesn’t eat very much meat.
  • Fibre: With 8% fibre content, it’s not as fibre-rich as legumes, but provides a lot more than most other grains.
  • Gluten-free: Great news for coeliacs!
  • Essential fats: Quinoa has a high fat content, of which more than half is made up of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids
  • Vitamins & minerals: It’s a better source of minerals than most other grains, in particular iron, magnesium and zinc. Quinoa provides good levels of Vitamin E and some B vitamins.

The nutrient value of quinoa is part of the reason why the UN declared 2013 ‘International Year of Quinoa’. Part of the project was to promote quinoa as a great way to address food security issues in places where access to adequate nutrition is low.

How much does quinoa cost?

Uncooked whole grain quinoa starts from around $1.50 per 100g – that’s as much as five to ten times the cost of rice, depending on the variety and brand. One way to get the extra taste, texture and nutrition without breaking the bank is to eat a mixture of quinoa and rice. Quinoa flakes start a little more expensive, from around $2.00 per 100g.

To find quinoa puffs and flour, you may have to go a specialty health food store, where it will not be cheap. You may find the flour for around $2.40 per 100g and the puffs for $6.00 per 100g. If you’ve got the time, there’s online guides to puffing your own quinoa, which can be much cheaper.

Is quinoa environmentally-friendly?

Compared to other grain crops, quinoa is highly adaptable to diverse climates and hardy under difficult conditions. It can grow in different kinds of environments, and has proved successful all across the world from Kenya to Canada to Sweden (and many more places in between). It’s also grown here in Australia. According to NASA. it would even be an ideal crop to grow in space!

It’s a water-efficient crop with resistance to salinity and low production costs. This makes it environmentally-friendly plus a smart investment in the wake of climate change’s impacts on agriculture.

Feeling keen for quinoa?

It’s expensive for staple use, but quinoa can add some highly nutritious variety to your diet. Even though it’s hard to pronounce, it’s easy to use. If you’re looking for more protein, more fibre, and more essential nutrients on your place, quinoa may be your answer.

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