Quinoa, Nutritious Mother Grain of the Incas

The Folklore. Known in the Inca language as the “mother grain,” quinoa (keen-wah) sustained the people of the Andes mountains of Bolivia, Chile and Peru for the past 5,000 years. This nutritious seed was highly regarded in Incan culture, and was believed to provide stamina to warriors. During the European conquest of South America, Spanish colonists squelched quinoa cultivation because of its sacred status in a non-Christian society, but this super-grain was not suppressed for long. While it was essentially unheard of in the U.S. a couple of decades ago, the popularity of this ancient grain is gaining momentum.

The Facts. Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa Willd.) thrives in cold, high elevations like the Andes; here, it’s cultivated successfully in Colorado. Though its considered a whole grain, quinoa is not a true grain in the botanical sense; close relatives include beets and spinach. Quinoa is a nutrition treasure, with a high content of complete protein that supplies all nine essential amino acids. In addition, quinoa is a good source of fiber, folate, manganese, magnesium, iron, copper and phosphorus. Health-protective compounds like polyphenols, phytosterols and flavonoids have also been found in quinoa. Quinoa is such a near-perfect food, it’s being considered as a crop for NASA’s Controlled Ecological Life Support System for long-duration manned spaceflights.

The Findings. Quinoa offers all the health benefits attributed to whole grains, including reduced risk of stroke, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer. An in vitro study published in the August 2009 issue of the Journal of Medicinal Food evaluated 10 Andean grains, including quinoa, for potential type 2 diabetes-relevant antihyperglycemia and antihypertension activity. Results showed that quinoa was rich in the antioxidant, quercetin and had the highest antioxidant activity among the grains studied, leading the researchers to conclude that quinoa (in addition to other Andean grains) has the potential to be a dietary strategy to manage type 2 diabetes and associated hypertension.

The Finer Points. With its delicate, nutty flavor and fluffy, crunchy texture, quinoa is a very versatile food. Substitute it for rice, pasta or grains in your favorite dishes. To cook quinoa, wash the seeds, combine two parts liquid to one part seeds in a saucepan, cover, and simmer for about 15 minutes. Toss cooked quinoa with vinaigrette and fresh vegetables in a salad, stir it into vegetable soups, mix it into a pilaf with broth and herbs, top it with pasta sauce, or boil it with nuts and dried fruit for a breakfast porridge. Quinoa flour can be used in baked goods as a gluten-free flour alternative. Discover for yourself the nutrition power of this delicious mother grain.

?Sharon Palmer, R.D.

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