Quinoa — Grains You Might Have Never Heard of or Tried, But Should

by Charles Platkin, PhD

What It Is: Quinoa is not technically a grain. “It is a seed of the goosefoot plant. The seeds are small, flat and oval, resembling a mix of sesame seed and millet. When cooked, the seed transforms into an interesting shape. The outer germ twists outward to form a small white ‘tail’ that is attached to the kernel. This gives the cooked grain a circular shape,” says Anne VanBeber, Ph.D., R.D., L.D., associate professor and chair of the department of nutritional sciences at Texas Christian University.

For about 5,000 years quinoa has been a staple food among natives of the South American Andes, who revered it for its outstanding nutritional properties. “It was considered sacred by the Incas, who called it the ‘mother grain,’” says VanBeber. Today it is primarily grown in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, where it can withstand the harsh mountainous, high-altitude environment.

Texture: When cooked, the inner part of the grain is soft, plump and tender, while the “tail” is slightly crunchy and chewy.

Tastes Like: Before quinoa is cooked, it must be rinsed to remove the soapy saponin resin that coats the seed and imparts a bitter taste. Rinsing may be accomplished by putting the raw quinoa in a colander and running it under cool water. Cooked quinoa has a nutty flavor that is considered “earthy.” “Its flavor is distinctive rather than bland and will dominate anything it is used in,” says Carol Fenster, Ph.D., author of Gluten-Free Quick & Easy (Avery/Penguin Group, 2007) www.GlutenFreeQuickandEasy.com

Nutritional Information: (¼ cup, uncooked) 159 calories, 2.47g fat, 9.76g carbs, 2.5g dietary fiber, 5.57g protein.

Nutrients: (Daily values are based on ¼ cup (uncooked)) Quinoa contains a high concentration of lysine, an essential amino acid, which is usually found in low concentrations in other grains, such as rice. “Quinoa also contains a high concentration of the amino acids cystine and methionine, which are usually low in beans. Thus, quinoa pairs nutritionally well with beans,” says VanBeber. Protein content of quinoa is 12 to18 percent. A 4-ounce serving will provide a child’s protein needs for one day. Quinoa is also a good food source of calcium, manganese, vitamin E, heart-healthy B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and vitamin B6) and insoluble fiber. Additionally, quinoa is a source of omega-3 fatty acids and is considered high in fat compared with other grains. Finally, it has some powerful, important minerals, including 3.93mg of iron (almost 22 percent of daily value), 89mg of magnesium (also 22 percent of daily value), 314mg of potassium (9 percent of daily value), 0.348mg of copper (17.5 percent of daily value) and 1.4mg of zinc (almost 9.35 percent of daily value). Because of the high fat content, quinoa seeds should be stored in the refrigerator to slow rancidity. They should be used within one year of purchase.

Perks: “Quinoa is considered a complete protein, because it contains all eight essential amino acids. Most grains are lacking in at least one amino acid, thus categorizing them as incomplete proteins,” says VanBeber. This makes it a good protein source for those on a vegetarian or vegan diet. “It is also being tested in research laboratories as a possible way to curb hunger and alleviate protein malnutrition in underdeveloped countries. Researchers at Brigham Young University have developed a quinoa cookie that has shown promising flavor appeal when fed to Bolivian children,” she adds. Plus, quinoa is gluten-free.

Best Served or Cooked With: Quinoa can be boiled into a savory pilaf or added to soups, stews or casseroles as a more nutritious substitute for rice. It can also be eaten as a sweet breakfast cereal. “Not only is quinoa delicious eaten as a hot grain, it can be a tasty addition to cold vegetable salads or bean/grain salads. Quinoa can also be ground into a nutritious flour,” says VanBeber. It can be substituted in a recipe for rice, couscous, millet, barley or any other grain.

Quinoa Tabbouleh

Serves 6

To cook quinoa

1 teaspoon canola oil

1 cup uncooked quinoa, rinsed twice

½ teaspoon salt

1 can (14.5 ounces) or 1¾ cups gluten-free, low-sodium chicken broth, such as Swanson Natural Goodness

¾ cup water


¼ cup shelled raw pumpkin seeds

1 English (hothouse) cucumber, unpeeled and finely diced

3 green onions, thinly sliced

1 small red bell pepper, cored, seeded and finely diced

1 small yellow bell pepper, cored, seeded and finely diced

½ cup chopped fresh parsley

½ cup chopped fresh cilantro

¼ cup chopped fresh mint

¼ cup crumbled feta cheese (optional)

Dressing and Garnish

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar or rice vinegar

¼ teaspoon table salt

1/8 teaspoon white pepper

Fresh mint or parsley sprigs for garnish

Most of the quinoa we buy today has already been rinsed to rid it of the bitter saponin coating, particularly if it is from www.bobsredmill.com, www.quinoa.com, www.quinoa.net or imported through Inca Organics. If you’re not sure about the source, rinse it in a sieve until the water runs clear. Saponin, a natural coating that wards off birds and insects, won’t hurt humans, but the quinoa tastes better without it.

1. Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat and toast the quinoa about 4 minutes, shaking the skillet occasionally, until the seeds are light golden brown.

2. Add the chicken broth and water, reduce the heat to low, and cook 15 to 20 minutes, covered, or until the quinoa is tender. Remove from heat and cool 10 minutes. Drain the quinoa well.

3. Combine the cooked quinoa and all tabbouleh ingredients except feta cheese in a large serving bowl.

4. Combine the dressing ingredients (except fresh mint or parsley) in screw-top jar and shake vigorously to blend. Pour over quinoa mixture and toss until all the ingredients are thoroughly coated. Cover the bowl and refrigerate 4 hours. Let stand at room temperature 20 minutes before serving. Toss with the feta cheese and garnish with fresh mint or parsley, if desired, just before serving.

Recipe Nutrition: (1 Serving) 370 calories, 16g fat, 50g carbs, 5g fiber, 13g protein, 56mg sodium.

Healthy recipe source: Carol Fenster, Ph.D., author of Gluten-Free Quick & Easy (Avery/Penguin Group, 2007) www.GlutenFreeQuickandEasy.com


CHARLES STUART PLATKIN is a nutrition and public health advocate, founder and editor of dietdetective.com, the online source for nutrition, fitness, food, diet and wellness information. Copyright 2008 by Charles Stuart Platkin. All rights reserved. Sign up for the free Diet Detective newsletter and iTunes podcast at www.dietdetective.com


Fat and Oil Nutrition Questions Answered

By Charles Stuart Platkin

Are all saturated fats bad for you? What about coconut oil? Is it dangerous to heat olive oil? Which is better: polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fat? We asked a few of the country’s leading nutrition experts, and here are their answers.

Is it true that you should not heat olive oil?

According to David L. Katz, M.D., a professor at the Yale School of Public Health, “Olive oil is, in general, a very nutritious choice; another is canola oil. Unsaturated oils are less tolerant of heat than saturated oils, however. When unsaturated oils are heated, some trans fat can form. This is the basis for claims that unsaturated oils such as olive oil, which is predominantly monounsaturated, are unsafe to cook with.”  But the claims are unfounded. “The degradation of oils occurs mostly at the ‘smoke point,’ literally the temperature above which the oil gives off smoke. This temperature is reached in deep fryers but is rarely reached with home cooking. With home cooking, there will still be some degradation of olive oil, but the effect is minimal. Population studies indicate that use of olive oil is associated with net health benefit — and that certainly includes use in cooking.”

Bottom line: Olive oil is safe to cook with, but don’t deep fry in it.

Are all saturated fats unhealthy?

There is clear evidence that not all saturated fatty acids are created equal. “Stearic acid, for instance, appears innocuous; it does not raise serum cholesterol or increase the risk of heart disease. This is one of the reasons why dark chocolate is as heart-healthy as it is,” says Katz.

So why has saturated fat been vilified? “Most of the demonization of saturated fat is based on the belief that it always raises cholesterol, an argument that has two huge holes in it,” says Jonny Bowden, Ph.D., author of The Healthiest Meals on Earth (Fair Winds Press, July 2008).

The fact is that saturated fat doesn’t always raise cholesterol, though it sometimes does. “We now know that there are many more types of cholesterol than just the commonly understood ‘LDL-bad’ and ‘HDL-good’. LDL alone has at least five different subtypes, and some of them (LDL-A) are absolutely harmless while others (like LDL-B) are not. Saturated fat tends to raise LDL, but it sometimes raises the harmless subtype, not the ‘bad’ subtype. It also raises HDL, frequently more than it does LDL, leaving an overall better blood lipid profile than before, even though the total cholesterol number may have gone up,” says Bowden.

Additionally, “Cholesterol is turning out to be a very poor predictor of cardiovascular disease and death, as we saw in those trials of the cholesterol drug that lowered cholesterol more than any before but did nothing for heart disease, plaque or mortality. If you take the fear of cholesterol-raising out of the equation, what’s the problem with saturated fat? Not too much,” adds Bowden.

However, that doesn’t mean you should start doubling up on the prime ribs. “Some saturated fatty acids are still very much implicated — in particular, palmitic and myristic acid. So red meat is still a concern; choosing meats that are lean, with relatively low saturated fat content is the way to go,” says Katz.

Pritikin Nutrition Research Director James J. Kenney, Ph.D., is strongly opposed to any levels of saturated fat in the diet. “There are no naturally occurring fats that are high in saturated fats that do not raise LDL-C (low-density lipoprotein cholesterol), because they contain palmitic, myristic and lauric acids — the three saturated fatty acids proven to raise LDL-C and promote atherosclerosis.” He goes on to argue that the only difference among the LDLs is that in some people some LDL patterns may be less harmful than in others – however they are still dangerous.

Bottom line: While no one is suggesting a diet high in saturated fat, limited amounts of whole-food sources such as “eggs, butter, grass-fed meat and the like may not be as bad as we once thought, especially when intake is balanced with plenty of anti-inflammatory omega-3s and phytonutrients from vegetables and fruits,” says Bowden.

Coconut oil — can it be healthy with all that saturated fat?

As for coconut oil, the jury is still out. “There is evidence that the mix of saturated fatty acids in coconut oil may not be as harmful as once believed, but there is evidence to the contrary, too. It is likely that coconut oil will prove to be less harmful/atherogenic than once believed, but very unlikely that it will emerge as competition for olive oil or canola oil as one of the most healthful options. It may, however, make a good alternative to trans fat in commercial foods,” says Katz. However, Kenney believes that the mere suggestion that coconut oil is safe is naïve, saying, “Coconut oil is extremely high in the three saturated fatty acids proven to raise LDL-C and promote atherosclerosis.”

Bowden is more optimistic. “Coconut oil — provided it’s 100 percent organic and extra virgin (like Barlean’s Coconut Oil, for example) — is a superfood. It suffered from a bad rap due to two concerns: One, it’s high in saturated fat, and two, the early coconut oil sold in the ’70s was an inferior product, high in trans fats and highly processed (definitely an unhealthy oil).”

“The fat in coconut oil is largely lauric acid, a particularly healthy fatty acid that has anti-viral and anti-microbial properties and is helpful for the immune system. It also contains the fatty acid caprylic acid, which is well known as a ‘yeast’ fighter,” says Bowden.

Bottom line: Probably not as bad as once thought, and certainly worth trying when using oil — but use it sparingly. One tablespoon is still about 120 calories. Just for comparison purposes, olive oil also has 120 calories per tablespoon, but only 1.86 grams of saturated fat, whereas coconut oil has 11.76 grams of saturated fat. Kenney, however, has a different bottom line: “The more coconut oil you eat, the higher your total and LDL-C levels will go, and the more atherosclerosis you will develop. If Americans eat more butter and/or coconut oil, buy stock in the drug companies making cholesterol-lowering statin drugs.”

Which is better: polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fat?

Both do good things for the body, but monounsaturated fatty acids might win by a nose in the race for heart health. According to Lona Sandon, M.Ed., R.D., a professor of nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, “Monounsaturated fats help lower total and LDL cholesterol levels while increasing the artery-protective HDL cholesterol. Monounsaturated fats may also help lower levels of inflammation in the body. Foods rich in monos include olive oil and tree nuts such as walnuts.”


Polyunsaturated fats include the much-talked-about essential fats known as omega-3s and omega-6s. In general, polyunsaturated fats lower total and LDL “bad” cholesterol, but they can also lower heart-healthy HDL cholesterol – which is not good. “Omega-3s are known for lowering triglycerides, blood fats, and decreasing total cholesterol. They are also helpful for lowering inflammation and maintaining a healthy brain. Although omega-6s are essential for your diet, too much may lead to more inflammation.

Corn, safflower, soybean, sesame and sunflower oils, and nuts or seeds are all good sources of polyunsaturated fats. The omega-3 type is found in greatest amounts in fatty fish like salmon and tuna. Walnuts and ground flax seed are also sources of omega-3s,” says Sandon.

Bottom line: Both are good in moderation.

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