QUINOA HEALTH BENEFITS
What is quinoa?
Quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) is making the rounds in the media as one of the “hottest” new superfoods.
While it’s actually been around for quite some time (like many so-called superfoods now trending), and has enjoyed popularity with vegetarians, vegans and the health-conscious, it is now beginning to gain wider recognition as a powerhouse source of nutrition and a handy addition to the pantry.
As a result, it is now relatively easy to find in supermarkets, health shops and in supplement form. But what is it?
While it is often viewed and treated as a grain, it’s actually a seed which comes from a grain crop – a species of the goosefoot genus (Chenopodium quinoa). This is a green, broad-leafed plant related to spinach and the weed lamb’s quarters. It is cultivated high in the Andes mountains in South America and, more recently, in North America.
The most common variety of quinoa is transparent yellow, but other varieties include orange, pink, red, purple and black.
Quinoa is easy to integrate into meals because they have a delicate and subtle nutty taste. When cooked, they have a fluffy, creamy and yet crunchy texture. As such, it is now widely used as a substitute for rice, couscous and gluten grains. It is popular with cooks because of its culinary versatility and, more importantly, its nutritional value.
A not-so-new discovery
Quinoa plants have been cultivated for culinary purposes for thousands of years (usually at altitudes well above 10,000 feet). In fact, there’s evidence of cultures consuming it as far back as 7,000 years ago.
For example, quinoa was a staple food of the Incas, who called it “the mother grain”. Similarly, it was revered by the ancient Aztecs as a source of energy for their warriors.
Why we call it a superfood
A phrase that is arguably in danger of over-use in today’s health circles, quinoa (along with such plants as wheatgrass and barley grass) is one of the few natural foods that genuinely deserves this title – at least in our opinion!
Close to being a perfect food source in terms of the overall balance of nutrition it provides, quinoa is particularly notable for being a rich source of high-quality protein – 12% to 18%.
It is also one of the few plant sources of “complete” protein, which means that it contains all of the essential amino acids (building blocks of protein), which can’t be manufactured by the body and must therefore be sourced from the diet.
In particular, quinoa contains the amino acid lysine, which helps the body to actually produce protein. It also helps the body to process the protein in quinoa, as well as in other protein foods, as it is naturally high in both methionine and cystine.
It is therefore an excellent food for vegetarians, vegans and anyone else looking for a plant-based protein boost (low in calories, saturated fat, contaminants and yet high in fibre, phyto-chemicals and other beneficial nutrients). Having all of these amino acids in a single food can make life easier for non meat-eaters, who would otherwise have to devise clever food combinations to ensure that their diets include the full amino acid profile.
According to The National Academy of Sciences, quinoa is “one of the best sources of protein in the vegetable kingdom”, yielding more than twice the protein of rice and five times more than corn. The World Health Organization has also rated the quality of protein in quinoa to be equivalent or superior to that found even in milk products!
Due to its broad nutritional content, and its exceptional protein content, quinoa can support health and vitality in a number of ways.
A nutritious gluten-free option
One of the most distinguishing features of quinoa (at least from a health perspective) is the fact that it is gluten-free.
Gluten is a composite protein present in grains such as wheat, rye, barley and their various cross-breeds. As an allergen, millions of people suffer from a negative reaction to gluten, including those suffering from coeliac disease.
As such, quinoa is a great (easily digestible) option for those with gluten sensitivities and allergies. Plus, it has the added advantage of being able to offer healthy levels of dietary fibre, vitamins and minerals (including vitamin E, phosphorus, potassium, riboflavin, niacin, thiamin and other B-vitamins, zinc, iron, calcium, copper, manganese, magnesium and folic acid).
Quinoa also happens to have a low glycaemic index (GI). This index rates foods based on how much (and how quickly) they make blood sugar levels rise.
Keeping your blood sugar stable is an essential component of maintaining good health. Not only can out of control blood sugar levels lead to serious short-term problems such as hypoglycemia, hyperglycemia and diabetic ketoacidosis; in the longer term it can also damage the vessels that supply blood to important organs, such as the heart, kidneys, eyes and nerves.
Blood sugar levels also affect a wide range of functions within the body, such as appetite, cravings, weight management, cholesterol levels and even mood.
With its low GI, quinoa is an ideal food to supply your body with nutrients, while keeping your blood sugar levels nice and stable. What’s more, in terms of calorie content, quinoa comes in at about 50 calories less per serving compared to brown rice and also has a lower carbohydrate content than any other grain beside corn.
So give it a try! Not a big fan of the taste or texture? Why not look for it in an easy-to-take supplement form (such as a meal shake or protein powder)!