The quinoa we buy in the shops looks like cous cous (made from wheat), and you may think it is a grain. You'd be mistaken. It is actually a collection of seeds from a plant of the chenopod family, the same family of plants as spinach, beetroot and chard.
Pronounced (keen-wha), it is mostly grown in the South American countries of Peru and Bolivia. Together they are responsible for about 90% of world production, with the US, Canda and Ecuador responsible for most of the remaining 10%. Increased demand is leading to small scale cultivation in other parts of the world, and this trend is likely to continue(1).
There is a closely related plant called fat hen or goosefoot, that is normally considered to be a weed, and that grows extensively in Europe. It too produces grain like seeds, however it does not produce them as abundantly as quinoa.
Quinoa is considered a superfood by some as it has a high protein content. For instance quinoa has 14% protein compared to wheat, which has 11%. It also contains all of the 8 essential amino acids that are needed to form protein in the body in good quantities. This is very unusual for plant foods, which are normally low in a few essential amino acids. For this reason vegans are advised to combine different types of plant foods to ensure they get enough protein.
Vitamin and mineral content
It also a very good source of manganese and a reasonable source of magnesium, phosphorus, copper folate and iron. One meal including quinoa could easily provide half of your daily manganese requirements. Manganese is an important antioxidant and plays an important role in the production of collagen that forms the framework for our bodies. Without sufficient collagen our bodies would fall apart.
Good for blood sugar
Being relatively high in fibre (3%) and protein (14%), quinoa is a low GI food. That is, it doesn't disrupt your blood sugar levels in the same way as cous cous, bread, pasta and rice would.
If like many people you have some degree of sensitivity to gluten then quinoa is a grain like carbohydrate source that is gluten free.
Quinoa - controversy?
While quinoa may contain all the amino acids that you need to make protein, and contain a good percentage of protein, it is not cheap. A typical bag of cous cous costs £1.40 for a kilo, while quinoa costs £6.00. This difference has grown up over the last few years, as the price of quinoa has tripled since 2006. For many in the west this is not a problem for a non staple food. However in Peru and Bolivia it has priced quinoa out of reach of many of the peope who produce it(2).
The increased demand for quinoa has led to a monoculture of in many areas of Peru and Bolivia. This has led to reduced llama grazing and the replacement of llama dung fertiliser with chemical fertilisers as well as desertification of some areas(3).
It has been claimed that the increase in price of quinoa had led to the increased consumption of imported junk food in Bolivia and Peru(2). However, the reality is more likely that the increased wealth of quinoa farmers has enabled them to choose which foods they eat, and unfortunately, as in so many other parts of the world junk food has been chosen.
- ¾ cup Quinoa, rinsed under cold running water (always rinse your quinoa!)
- 1½ cups water
- 1 cup diced courgette
- 1 cup choped tomatoes
- ½ cup baby green peas (can be thawed from frozen)
- 1 cup diced red pepper
- 3 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tbsp fresh oregano, finely chopped
- 1 cup cheese pieces squared
- ½ cup diced red onion
- 1 tsp minced fresh garlic
Bring the quinoa and water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Cover, reduce to a simmer and cook for 12-15 minutes. Turn the heat off and leave covered saucepan on the burner for another 5 minutes. Remove the lid and fluff the cooked quinoa with a fork. Set aside to cool completely.
Combine the zucchini, tomatoes, peas and red and yellow pepper in a large bowl. Whisk the vinegar, olive oil, mustard and oregano together in a small bowl. Pour the dressing over the vegetables and thoroughly mix all the ingredients. Add the quinoa and bocconcini and mix until evenly combined.
Makes 4-6 servings.
Source: Quinoa – The Everyday Superfood 365. Patricia Green & Carolyn Hemming.
For most people quinoa is best used occasionally to add variety to your diet. It can be boiled up (1 cup of dry quinoa with 2 cups of water) for 20 minutes until it has a fluffy texture. It can then be served with a range of vegetables, diced chicken or even with a curry. For those who do not eat meat, fish and dairy products it could be a useful addition to the diet, as it has more goodness to offer than the more common grain based products.