It seems these days, quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) is still all anyone talks about. Everywhere we turn there are quinoa salads, quinoa fried rice, and now even quinoa protein shakes. Forged in South America thousands of years ago and called “the mother grain” by the Inca, quinoa today is still considered a wonderful “superfood.”
But when and why did quinoa become so popular? What is it that makes this low-carb rice substitute so invaluable in the world of nutrition despite all the years that have passed?
Its popularity today may have just been good timing. In 2014, the Wall Street Journal dubbed quinoa “the perfect collision of trends,” which Abbey Sharp, RD, a blogger at Abbey’s Kitchen, totally gets. (2) “I think quinoa saw its biggest spike in popularity in 2014. This was partially because it’s a naturally gluten-free grain, which became important with the gluten-free trend,” she says. And because of its protein base, “this helped coincide with the rise in the vegan trend.”The newfound popularity of — and demand for — quinoa in wealthy countries like the United States hasn’t come without controversy, as the grain quickly turned from a nutritious staple in countries such as Peru and Bolivia into an expensive export crop. Mindful of both the negative and positive impacts of quinoa’s popularity on quinoa farmers, the United Nations declared 2013 the “International Year of Quinoa,” hoping to “focus world attention on the role that quinoa biodiversity can play ... in providing food security and nutrition and in the eradication of poverty.” (1)
Quinoa has since maintained buzz as one of the most popular health-food trends, including low- and gluten-free diet plans. But now at the peak of its popularity, some of us are returning to ask, well, what in the heck is it?
We’re here to explain.
Just What Is Quinoa?
Quinoa is a gluten-free, whole-grain carbohydrate, as well as a whole protein (meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids). (3) Most of this information is well known. But when it comes to whether quinoa is a whole grain or not, many people get confused. So, let’s clear this up.
Technically, the quinoa we all know and love is actually a seed from the Chenopodium quinoa plant. So no, it is not a grain. Whole grains (or cereal grains), like oats and barley, are defined as seeds extracted from grasses — not plants.
But the way we eat quinoa does resemble a whole grain. Because of this, the nutrition world considers it a whole grain. Or if you want to get real technical with it, quinoa is actually quantified as a “pseudo-cereal” — a term used to describe foods that are prepared and eaten as a whole grain, but are botanical outliers from grasses.
But the preferred colloquial term (though it may be slightly untrue) is whole grain.
What Are the Nutritional Facts for Quinoa?
Overall, quinoa has an incredible nutrition base. Compared with refined grains, whole grains like quinoa are considered better sources of fiber, protein, B vitamins, and iron. (4) But aside from these key nutrients, one of the greatest nutrient profiles quinoa can offer is its level of protein.
Because protein makes up 15 percent of the grain, quinoa is a high-protein, low-fat grain option. (5) It’s also naturally gluten free, high in fiber, and provides many key vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B and magnesium, lists the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) MyPlate guidelines. Because it is so nutrient-rich, quinoa is a wonderful choice for people on a gluten-free diet or any generally healthy diet.
According to the nutrition facts, 1 cup of cooked quinoa amounts to:
- 222 calories
- 39 grams (g) carbs
- 8 g protein
- 4 g fat
- 5 g fiber
- 2 g sugar (6)
What Are the Different Types of Quinoa?
Surprisingly, there are over 120 different varieties of quinoa as defined by the Whole Grains Council. Though the grain itself can manifest in a wide variety of colors (including purple!), the most common quinoa colors found across American grocers are white (also considered ivory or yellow quinoa), red, and black. (3)
Interestingly enough, all three of these quinoa types cook and taste differently. While white quinoa has a fluffy post-cook texture, red and black quinoa are known to keep more of their shape and color after cooking. Red quinoa also has a heartier taste and chewier texture than the muted, bitter taste of white quinoa, while black quinoa tastes somewhat crunchy and slightly sweeter than either red or white.
After its popularity spike in 2014, quinoa was mainly sold in its natural seed form. But since then, many other adaptations of the product have also started to appear. Now, you can find quinoa flour for alternative baking and quinoa flakes (steamed quinoa rolled into thin, near-transparent flakes for faster cooking) stocked on the shelves of every supermarket.
But that’s not all. For the truly quinoa-obsessed, quinoa chips, quinoa pasta, and yes, even quinoa chocolate exist.
What Are the Possible Health Benefits of Quinoa?
The amount of research on quinoa has grown tremendously over the years, in part because of the 2014 hype, but in larger part due to the seed’s continually recognized health benefits. The nutrient-rich pseudo-cereal is proposed to reduce the risk of a number of illnesses, and provide an ideal protein-packed substitute for gluten-free diets.
Whole grains like quinoa have been considered preventative for certain types of cancer due to their high levels of fiber. One study suggests that the dietary fiber in whole grains may help lower LDL, or “bad,” levels of cholesterol, boost digestive health, and potentially lower the risk for some gastrointestinal cancers, such as colon cancer. (7)
Another study found that consumers of magnesium-rich foods have a reduced risk of stroke. (8) Because of its high magnesium levels (a cup of cooked quinoa contains about one-third of your daily recommended magnesium intake suggested by the USDA), eating quinoa on a regular basis can help maintain an optimal magnesium level, which has been linked to improvement in heart health. (9)
Quinoa’s magnesium also makes it a healthy food for people with or at risk for type 2 diabetes — the condition is frequently linked to magnesium deficit. (10)
Is Quinoa Better for You Than Rice?
Quinoa’s nutritional profile is different from rice’s. Compared with quinoa’s nutritional stats (see above), according to the USDA, 1 cup of cooked long-grain brown rice contains about:
- 248 calories
- 52 g carbs
- 6 g protein
- 2 g fat
- 3 g fiber
- 0.5 g sugar (11)
So, which one is better for your health? Sharp says while it’s important to enjoy “a wide variety of foods,” she concludes that “quinoa has more fiber and protein and is also a complete protein. So head to head I would choose quinoa if it was an either-or choice.”
Quinoa is also considered a safe gluten-free, whole-grain choice for people living with celiac disease — a condition in which your body cannot tolerate gluten. One study found that 44 percent of people living with celiac disease chose rice as their preferred grain. (12) When switching to naturally gluten-free grains like quinoa, the study found vast improvement in nutrients, most notably in protein levels, which skyrocketed from 11 g to 20.6 g.
Sharp also notes that quinoa isn’t just great for people following a gluten-free diet. “It’s a complete protein,” she says, “making it a great option for vegetarians and vegans.”
Can Eating Quinoa Help You Lose Weight?
Packed with protein and fiber, quinoa can certainly promote feelings of fullness — a notion Sharp backs up. “Quinoa is a low-glycemic-index carbohydrate since it’s very rich in fiber and protein,” she explains, “This means you’ll feel fuller longer after consuming it, which may help you eat less over time.”
Quinoa is hardly considered a low-calorie food source — just 1 cup of plain, cooked quinoa is 222 calories. But high-fiber foods like quinoa can help you lose weight when they’re part of an overall balanced and varied diet.
Are There Any Side Effects to Eating Quinoa?
Quinoa, as it seems, really is as healthy as we hear, especially when you practice portion control. And Sharp says it is also incredibly safe to eat consistently. “The only likely side effect is just some stomach irritation as a result of the saponin (the natural coating) on the outside of the grains,” she says.
Even so, this can be easily prevented before eating. “To reduce the likelihood of an irritation, you’ll want to make sure to rinse the quinoa really well before use,” Sharp recommends.
How Do You Cook Quinoa?
It all depends on the form of quinoa you’re cooking. The natural grain itself takes about 15 minutes to cook, potentially more if you’re making black quinoa. Quinoa flakes, on the other hand, take no more than a minute and a half to cook, making them a great on-the-go breakfast or snack.
What Are the Best Ways to Use Quinoa?
Quinoa works nicely on its own, as a substitute for rice, or tossed with other ingredients. With its subtle flavor profile and fluffy texture, the whole grain is super easy to spice up with different flavors, or slip into other ingredients. Because of the mild taste, it can also be served savory or sweet.
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- Secretary-General’s Remarks to General Assembly at Launch of International Year of Quinoa 2013. United Nations Secretary-General. February 20, 2013.
- Quinoa Rides the ‘Superfoods’ Wave. The Wall Street Journal. July 29, 2014.
- Quinoa — March Grain of the Month. Whole Grains Council.
- Whole Grains: Hearty Options for a Healthy Diet. Mayo Clinic. August 20, 2020.
- Quinoa. Grains & Legumes Nutrition Council.
- Quinoa, Cooked. U.S. Department of Agriculture FoodData Central. April 2018.
- Jonnalagadda SS, Harnack L, Liu RH, et al. Putting the Whole Grain Puzzle Together: Health Benefits Associated With Whole Grains — Summary of American Society for Nutrition 2010 Satellite Symposium. The Journal of Nutrition. May 2011.
- Larsson SC, Orsini N, Wolk A. Dietary Magnesium Intake and Risk of Stroke: A Meta-Analysis of Prospective Studies. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. February 2012.
- Magnesium. National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. June 2, 2022.
- Barbagallo M, Dominguez L. Magnesium and Type 2 Diabetes. World Journal of Diabetes. August 2015.
- Rice, Brown, Long-Grain, Cooked. U.S. Department of Agriculture FoodData Central. April 2018.
- Lee AR, Ng DL, Dave E, et al. The Effect of Substituting Alternative Grains in the Diet on the Nutritional Profile of the Gluten-Free Diet. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics. August 2009.
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