Quinoa: Palate-pleasing and disease-fighting

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Whole grains are hot.  If you haven’t been reaping both their palate-pleasing and disease-fighting attributes assorted whole grains, then it’s a time to make the switch from refined, bland offerings to nutty, flavour-packed options. And if you’re already enjoying them, why not expand your repertoire with some new choices?

If quinoa – pronounced keen-wah – doesn’t have a regular spot on your menu, here’s an introduction. While it’s relatively new to North American plates – I first tasted it back in the early 1990s at a trendy restaurant in South Beach, Florida and had no idea what it was – its history in South America goes back 5,000 to 7,000 years. It’s yet another case of the wisdom of the ages: the ancient Incas called it ‘the mother grain’ and gave it a sacred status as a gift from their gods. Considering its nutritional attributes, you have to wonder why it took so long to go mainstream.

Firstly, it’s important to set the record straight. While quinoa is grouped together with grains, botanically speaking, it’s really a seed, one that is a member of the same family to which green leafy vegetables like Swiss chard and spinach belong. Quinoa’s nutritional profile and the ways in which it’s used at meals, though, resemble a grain more than a seed.

Quinoa is packed with a variety of nutrients, many of which are in higher amounts than what’s found in most grains. Due to its high protein content, it has become a darling of vegetarians. It’s also superior in the amounts of certain minerals including calcium, magnesium, iron, copper and zinc when compared to other grains. And it’s no slouch on the vitamin front either as it provides the B vitamins riboflavin, folate, niacin and biotin along with vitamin E. The vitamin A content may vary due to the colour of quinoa as you can get white, red and even black quinoa seeds.

Quinoa’s fibre content is also pretty impressive with more than five grams for a cup of cooked quinoa. In addition, it has a low glycemic index, meaning that it enters the blood stream very slowly, making it a grain of choice for those concerned with blood sugar regulation issues.

Quinoa’s phytochemical content is also under much scientific scrutiny. In the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, Chilean researchers point to quinoa’s potent antioxidant activity as well. Antioxidants fight off the ravages of oxidative diseases such as heart disease and stroke, certain cancers, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. This ancient grain also supplies substances to combat high blood pressure.

Quinoa’s saponins – compounds which are actually found in the grain to help protect it from being eaten by insects and birds – offer blood cholesterol-lowering and immune system-boosting action.

And if that’s not enough, quinoa is also gluten-free. Researchers at the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University found that including it in a gluten-free diet for those with celiac disease significantly improved the nutritional profile of the subjects’ diets.

When you consider all of its attributes, it’s easy to see why quinoa’s reputation is soaring in nutrition circles.

It’s also a great choice for those looking for fast food as it only takes 15 minutes to cook. Compare that with the 45 to 60 minutes for barley, wheat berries and kamut. It even beats out brown and wild rice. Plus it does not require any pre-soaking to clock in at this speedy time for preparation.

Quinoa is available nowadays as flakes, flour and in grain form. You can also find pastas made from quinoa. Have it as a cooked cereal for breakfast, as part of a grain salad, pilaf or soup for lunch or dinner or as a dessert or snack item in baked goods.

It doesn’t get any more versatile.

A super resource for quinoa lovers or newbies is Quinoa The Everyday Superfood 365 (Whitecap) by Patricia Green and Carolyn Hemming. With more than 170 recipes, the book will help to make quinoa a staple in your home.

For more information on the health benefits and scientific research on quinoa, or any whole grain for that matter, the Whole Grains Council has just launched a new tool for consumers. Go to their website and choose the grain you’re interested in finding more about. If you like, you can choose from a list of diseases or conditions or simply get the whole scoop on your grain of choice.

Once you’ve been persuaded as to the disease-fighting weaponry each grain provides, be sure to click on the cooking tips and recipes on the website.

Are you a fan of quinoa? How do you like to prepare it? Please share your preparations in the comments below.

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Categories: Superfoods

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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  1. Rice and arsenic: Go for a variety of grains as a smart strategy | Enlightened Eater - October 22, 2012

    […] instance, quinoa contains compounds called saponins which supply blood cholesterol lowering action along with immune system benefits. Barley, on the […]

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