While a first look might give you the impression that quinoa (say: keen-wa) is a grain, it’s actually not a part of the grain family (wheat, corn, millets, etc). It’s related to spinach and beets. It’s native to Peru, Columbia, Ecuador, and Bolivia.
Quinoa has gained popularity in the nutrition arena. It’s touted for its high fiber and protein content, both of which help with weight and blood sugar management. The protein in quinoa is complete, a plus for people following vegetarian diets. It’s gluten-free (buy Certified Gluten-Free to prevent cross-contamination) and low in FODMAPs, making it an appealing alternative to people seeking those specific dietary changes.
Saponins and Health
Quinoa has saponins, chemical compounds found in many plant species that form a soapy foam when washed in water. Saponins give quinoa its bitter taste. Are saponins healthy? To answer that question, keep in mind that there many saponin compounds and their effects on health can depend on how they interact with other nutrients. Some studies show that saponins can lower cholesterol, blood sugar, and cancer risk, in addition to having antioxidant and anti-fungal properties. Other studies show that saponins can increase gut permeability and immune system activation causing food sensitivities and inflammation reactions. They may also lower protein digestion and vitmian and mineral absorption.
My recommendation is to wash quinoa thoroughly–that will reduce the saponins you eat and make quinoa taste better. If you have digestive issues or suspect that quinoa is triggering food sensitivities, consider MRT-LEAP testing as quinoa is one of the 150 foods tested.
Quinoa Vs. Rice
I wanted to compare quinoa to brown rice as it seems to be the most similar food in terms of texture, usage, and cooking methods.
The table above compares one cup of cooked quinoa to one cup cooked long grain brown rice. Both are almost similar in calorie and fiber content. Quinoa has more protein and fat, whereas rice has more carbohydrates. Except for selenium (antioxidant), quinoa provides a high percent of the daily values of most minerals (iron, magnesium, potassium and zinc). It has more vitamin E (antioxidant) and folate (important for fetus development) that rice, while rice has more niacin (extracts energy from food).
Generally speaking, quinoa is slightly healthier than brown rice. My recommendation is to alternate both to get the best of both and to add variety to your dishes.
I have to admit that I wasn’t a big fan of quinoa the first time I had it. It was a too bitter and had a funny texture. While it can extend your time in the kitchen–especially if you tend to lean towards the lazy side in the kitchen!–rinsing quinoa is the key to prevent bitter soapy flavor. Even if you buy pre-washed quinoa, always take few minutes to wash using a fine sieve.
When cooked, quinoa is fluffy and has a nutty flavor. It’s often used in cold salads. I’ve seen tabouleh recipes that call for quinoa instead of bulgur since the latter is made of wheat which isn’t gluten-free. We also eat quinoa hot, as a side dish instead of rice. The trick is adding lots of flavor from vegetable or chicken stock, herbs and seasonings, and vegetables. As a rule of thumb, 1 cup of uncooked quinoa needs 2 cups of water to cook and yields 4 cups of cooked quinoa.
Vegetable Quinoa Pilaf
- 1 cup dry quinoa
- 2 cups water
- 1 tablespoons olive oil
- ½ small onion, chopped
- 2 garlic cloves
- ½ inch cube fresh ginger root, chopped
- 1 cup shredded carrots
- 2 cups shredded cabbage (can buy Cole slaw mix)
- ½ tablespoon raw apple cider vinegar
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- ½ cup slivered almonds
- 2 cups packed baby spinach, chopped
- Rinse quinoa thoroughly with water. If your stainer is too large, place a paper towel on top to collect the quinoa.
- Place the quinoa and water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer covered for 15 minutes. Quinoa is done when translucent and flakes. Remove from the pan.
- Heat olive oil on medium heat in the same pan. Saute the onions until translucent for about 2 minutes. Add the ginger and garlic and cook for another minute.
- Stir in the shredded carrots and cabbage, the apple cider vinegar, salt, and pepper. Cook for 10 minutes, tossing once half way.
- Return the cooked quinoa and stir in the almonds and spinach. Cook for another 5 minutes.
- Check seasonings and adjust if needed.
- Serve warm. For a more filling and higher protein meal, you can add to each serving 1 hard-boiled egg, 3 ounces deli turkey, 3 ounces cooked shrimp, 3 ounces leftover chicken, or ½ cup crumbled feta cheese.
Low FODMAPs Modification
Remove garlic and onion and replace with 1/4 cup scallions (the green part only). Instead of the cabbage, use more carrots and spinach or replace with chopped kale or chopped zucchini.
MRT-LEAP (food sensitivities) Modification
All ingredients are tested on the MRT panel. If quinoa is reactive, use rice, buckwheat groats, or amaranth groats. Use your allowed vegetables (choose from spinach, carrots, tomato, zucchini, yellow squash, eggplant, broccoli). Use your allowed nuts (walnuts, pecans, and pistachios can work here too).
How do you cook quinoa? If you have a favorite recipe, write me a comment and share the link. Would love to learn more quinoa ideas 🙂
Have a great Monday!