Quinoa – A healthier whole-grain

If you want to eat healthily, consider adding quinoa in your diet. Quinoa is growing in popularity, and you can easily find it in your local supermarkets these days. It is easy to prepare, delicious to eat, and goes well with many different types of cooking. Most importantly, it has many amazing nutritional and functional properties that are good for health. Here is a brief introduction to this unique whole grain.

Quinoa – a pseudocereal originated from South America.

What is quinoa?

Cereals are grains from grass plants, such as rice, wheat, barley, oats, or corns that are used for food. Quinoa is also a type of grain, but not from a grass plant, and is used as food like cereals. Hence, technically, quinoa is classified as pseudocereals. The scientific name of the plant that produces quinoa is Chenopodium quinoa Willd.  The plant is originated from the Andean region (Chile, Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia) of South America. Quinoa is a traditional food for the Incas and Tiwankans people for centuries, with records of its cultivations dated back thousands of years [1,2]. Only in the last few decades that quinoa is gaining recognition as an essential crop for commercial agriculture. The quinoa plant is very versatile and can adapt to many environments. Hence many countries outside of South America, including the USA, China, France, and Canada, are now producing quinoa. However, more than 80% of quinoa in the world are still grown in Bolivia and Peru [3]. The grains come in many colour varieties, with white, black, and red colours being the most common.   

The quinoa plant (Chenopodium quinoa Willd.).

Nutritional values

The nutritional profile of quinoa is different from common cereals such as rice, barley, wheat, and corn. It has lower carbohydrates (74% compared to more than 80% in other grains), higher protein contents (16% versus 8% in rice and 14% in wheat), and higher in lipids and dietary fibres [2]. Quinoa is a source of good quality protein, especially rich in methionine, and lysine, two amino acids commonly lack in other cereals. Most importantly, the protein in quinoa is gluten-free.  It contains neither gliadins (like wheat) nor protein fractions corresponding to gliadin (oats, barley, rye, and malt). In additional, quinoa also contains vitamin B complex, vitamins E and C, and minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, phosphorus, manganese, zinc, copper, and sodium [2]. Not surprisingly, quinoa is considered a complete food.

Quinoa (in three colours) – a complete food with high-quality plant-based protein.

Functional values

Functional values of food refer to the additional potential health benefits of the food beyond nutrition. Quinoa also contains antioxidants in the forms of flavonoids and phenolic compounds. These natural antioxidants in quinoa play a role in reducing free radicals and oxidation chain reactions within cells and tissues. This can reduce the risk of cell damage.

Quinoa is considered a whole grain. Unlike white rice, where more than 35% of the nutrients in the bran is removed in the milling process [4], quinoa is consumed with minimal processing. The health benefits of increased consumption of whole-grain food are now widely recognised and supported by research evidence. Scientific studies over the past 40 years confirmed that eating about 45g of whole grains can reduce the risk of type II diabetes by 20%-32%, cardiovascular diseases by 21 to 37%, and cancers of the digestive tract (colorectal, pancreatic, and gastric) by 6% to 43%. Hence, it is no surprise that you see more and more public health campaign encouraging more whole-grain consumption. Replacing refined cereals like white rice with quinoa is a recommended way to reap the benefits of whole grain.

A quinoa meal is not only gluten-free but also low in glycaemic index.

The gluten-free nature of quinoa also makes it a suitable grain for anyone who is gluten-intolerant or gluten-sensitive. It is safer to consume without causing digestive issues such as bloating, pain, and diarrhoea [5]. Furthermore, quinoa also has a glycaemic index of around 50-53 (See https://www.glycemicindex.com/foodSearch.php), which is considered low. Hence, it is well suited as a source of carbohydrates and proteins for diabetic patients. A cross-over study with 37 healthy overweight men consuming both quinoa-enriched bread and ordinary white bread for four weeks found the men had significantly lower blood glucose levels when eating the quinoa-enriched option [6].

How to prepare quinoa?

Vacuum Flask cooker Open
You can cook quinoa in a thermal cooker easily.

Quinoa is very easy to cook. There are many ways to prepare quinoa, you can steam it, boil it over cook-top, or roast it in the oven. My personal approach is to cook it in a thermal pot. Here are the steps to prepare:

  1. Put quinoa in the inner steel pot of a thermal pot
  2. Wash quinoa with water
  3. Soak the quinoa for 20 to 30 minutes, ideally with low alkaline water (about PH 7.5)  
  4. Drain the soaking water and add fresh filtered water with 1:1 ratio (i.e. one cup of quinoa to one cup to water)
  5. Put the inner steel pot on the stove top and cook with high heat until full boil
  6. Turn the heat to medium-low and continue cooking until the water reduce to the level of the quinoa
  7. Turn off the heat, cover the inner pot with lid, and put it into the outer thermal container.
  8. Leave it for 20 minutes.
  9. Open the lid and stir the content evenly
  10. The quinoa is perfectly cooked and ready to serve

Why soaking?

Like most whole grains, the outer layer of quinoa is coated with anti-nutrients, including saponins, phytic acid, tannins, nitrates, oxalates, and trypsin inhibitors, that can interfere with its digestibility, absorption, or utilisation of nutrients, possibly causing harmful effects on health if ingested in high concentrations [2]. These anti-nutrients are natural defensive mechanisms of the grains to maximise the chance of surviving ingestion by birds and animals in the wild and allow it to sprout in fertile droppings after passing through the digestive tracts.

QuinoaGrains
The anti-nutrients on the surface of quinoa seeds can be dissolved through soaking.

Soaking is an excellent way to remove these anti-nutrients and improve its digestibility. Some people suggest soaking quinoa overnight for 12 to 24 hours. However, extensive soaking can also reduce the nutritional values of quinoa. Hence, unless you have a weak stomach, I don’t recommend oversoaking. Soaking for 20-30 minutes in weak alkaline water is enough to remove most of the water-soluble saponins (which give a bitter taste) and other anti-nutrients.

You can use the cooked quinoa to replace white rice, use in a salad, or baked in the oven, depending on your culinary innovation.  Enjoy!

Enjoy quinoa anyway you like – you know you are eating healthily!

References

[1]        S. Jaikishun, W. Li, Z. Yang, S. Song, Quinoa: In Perspective of Global Challenges, Agronomy. 9 (2019) 176. doi:10.3390/agronomy9040176.

[2]        A.M.M. Filho, M.R. Pirozi, J.T.D.S. Borges, H.M. Pinheiro Sant’Ana, J.B.P. Chaves, J.S.D.R. Coimbra, Quinoa: Nutritional, functional, and antinutritional aspects, Crit. Rev. Food Sci. Nutr. 57 (2017) 1618–1630. doi:10.1080/10408398.2014.1001811.

[3]        D. Bazile, S.-E. Jacobsen, A. Verniau, The Global Expansion of Quinoa: Trends and Limits, Front. Plant Sci. 7 (2016) 1–6. doi:10.3389/fpls.2016.00622.

[4]        S. Muthayya, J.D. Sugimoto, S. Montgomery, G.F. Maberly, An overview of global rice production, supply, trade, and consumption, Ann. N. Y. Acad. Sci. 1324 (2014) 7–14. doi:10.1111/nyas.12540.

[5]        V.F. Zevallos, I.L. Herencia, F. Chang, S. Donnelly, J.H. Ellis, P.J. Ciclitira, Gastrointestinal Effects of Eating Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoaWilld.) in Celiac Patients, Am. J. Gastroenterol. 109 (2014). https://journals.lww.com/ajg/Fulltext/2014/02000/Gastrointestinal_Effects_of_Eating_Quinoa.21.aspx.

[6]        L. Li, G. Lietz, W. Bal, A. Watson, B. Morfey, C. Seal, Effects of Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa Willd.) Consumption on Markers of CVD Risk, Nutrients. 10 (2018) 777. doi:10.3390/nu10060777.

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