A Look at Quinoa: The It Health Food of the Year

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Have you heard of quinoa? (For the uninitiated, that’s pronounced “keen-wah.”) If you haven’t, you’ll want to learn about it: Quinoa is the current “it” health food.

What is Quinoa?
Quinoa is a grain-like crop that has been cultivated in the Andes by native peoples since the time of the Incan empire. When the Spanish conquered the Inca, they suppressed the cultivation of quinoa and forced the Native Americans to grow wheat in its place. It is probably due to this early scorning of quinoa that westerners are only now starting to know and enjoy it.

Although quinoa is often referred to as a whole grain, technically it is not a grain because it is not a part of the grass family. However, even though it’s more closely related to tumbleweeds than to wheat, it can be used as a healthy substitute for rice, pasta, or millet. The consistency of cooked quinoa is similar to couscous, the pasta-like North African dish of purified wheat middlings.

Health Benefits of Quinoa
Gluten-free, easy to digest, and filled with essential amino acids, quinoa has a much higher nutritional content than most other staple grains. Wheat and rice, for example, are both low in the amino acid lysine, which is an important amino acid for building and maintaining muscle. Quinoa is also rich in fiber, phosphorus, magnesium, and iron—all of which most Americans do not get enough of in their typical western diet.

Here is the nutrition data for one cup of quinoa, which could easily serve two or three people:
4 grams of fat, with no saturated fat or trans fat
No cholesterol
13 mg of sodium
39 g of carbohydrates, including 5 g of fiber and no sugar
8 g of protein

By comparison, even long-grain brown rice, generally considered to be a healthy carbohydrate, has less protein and far fewer essential minerals than quinoa. A cup of cooked brown rice and a cup of cooked quinoa has almost the same number of calories, but quinoa provides more nutritional “bang for the buck.”

How to Prepare Quinoa
Some quinoa sold in bulk may need to be soaked first to remove the coating of saponins. Saponins are mildly toxic chemicals secreted by a plant to prevent animals from eating the seeds. The vast majority of commercially sold quinoa, however, has already had this outer coating of saponins removed.

There are two main varieties of quinoa: red quinoa and regular, white quinoa. From the point of view of nutrition, both varieties offer the same health benefits. From the point of view of taste, the red quinoa has a slightly stronger, earthier flavor than the white quinoa.

Quinoa cooks almost exactly the same as rice—use two cups of water for every one cup of quinoa. After bringing the quinoa and water to a boil, turn the heat off, cover, and let the quinoa simmer for about fifteen minutes. You’ll want to fluff it with a fork and drain any excess water before serving. You can also cook quinoa in a rice cooker, but you’ll want to keep an eye on it to prevent it from burning on the bottom. When cooking quinoa in a rice cooker, you might want to add a little extra water to prevent the burning and dryness.

You can use quinoa with any dish in which you would normally use rice or couscous. Alternatively, there are a number of quinoa recipes you can find online, ranging from quinoa soups to sweet quinoa breakfast recipes.

The Dark Side of Quinoa
There is one downside of the quinoa craze that’s hitting North America. As the grain-like seeds rise in popularity, they’re also rising in price for native Andeans. While that’s good for poor Bolivian farmers in some respects, the new demand for quinoa is making the exported crop too expensive for native peoples to buy it for themselves.

Some Bolivians argue that the standard of living in small villages is improving thanks to the new interest in quinoa. Children from poor families are going to school now, when their families previously couldn’t afford to send them, and many families are moving out of crowded city slums and back to their home villages to take up farming again (Source:

However, nutritionists in Bolivia fear that removing the healthy grain as part of the staple diet of rural Bolivians will lead to widespread malnutrition. In American dollars, one two-pound bag of quinoa costs about $4.85 in Bolivia, whereas noodles cost only $1.20 and white rice costs $1 (Source: New York Times).

Make the Switch to Quinoa
As the Bolivian government works out how to manage their new cash crop, Americans investigating how to lose weight fast are making the switch to quinoa in droves. If you haven’t ever tried it before, give it a shot. Find a quinoa recipe online that looks good to you and try out the new “it” health food. 


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