Quinoa: An Amazing Grain

Quinoa, the “mother” grain of the Incas, is making a dramatic comeback as its amazing health properties are being rediscovered by consumers around the world.

Quinoa (pronounced keen-wa) is not yet a household staple like rice, corn, or wheat, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth checking out. In fact, when one considers all that this food has to offer, it may well be worth using it to replace rice or pasta in favorite recipes.

History of Quinoa

Quinoa comes from South America, where it was cultivated in the mountainous regions of the Andes by the Incas. The use of quinoa among this ancient culture can be traced back almost 5000 years. Quinoa formed one of the three staple foods of the Incan people along with corn and potatoes. To the Incas, this grain was sacred and was referred to as the “mother grain.”

Why was quinoa so valuable to the Incans? First of all, it was an excellent energy provider and sustainer. Quinoa was eaten by Inca warriors and helped to sustain them over long marches. The plant itself is also remarkably hardy, and able to grow in the worst of conditions; from climates with low rainfall, hot sun, poor soil, to high altitudes with thin air and cold temperatures, making it ideally suited to the mountainous regions and a much more reliable choice than other, less hardy plants.

Unfortunately, cultivation of the plant decreased when the Spaniards began their conquest of South America in the 16th century, and production became limited to only remote areas. Quinoa has recently made a comeback, and was introduced to America by two Colorado natives who began cultivation in the 1980s.

The Quinoa Plant

Quinoa, while often treated as such, is not really a grain, but a fruit of the Chenopodium family. It is related to lamb’s quarter, Swiss chard, beets, and spinach. Chenopodium quinoa is an annual herb, with the fruit appearing in clusters at the end of the stalk. The clusters themselves are coated with a bitter substance similar to resin that is known as saponin which must be removed before the fruit is used. The most common variety of quinoa is the yellow fruit, but quinoa can vary in color from orange and pink to red, purple, and black. The leaves of the plant are also edible, though not often eaten.

Quinoa’s Healthy Contents

Quinoa has garnered attention for a variety of reasons. It is high in a variety of vitamins and minerals, including calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, potassium, riboflavin, vitamin E, and several B vitamins. It is high in fiber and linoleic acid and low in sodium. Quinoa also contains albumin, a form of protein found in egg white and plant and animal tissues.

What stands out the most about this grain, however, is its protein content and composition. Quinoa has more protein than just about any other grain. It’s a high quality protein source, with a complete balance of all of the essential amino acids. Particularly of note, quinoa contains the amino acids lysine, cystine, and methionine, all of which are typically lacking in grains.

Quinoa is a whole grain, and as such, may provide health benefits which research has suggested a diet rich in whole grains may offer, like a lowered risk of heart disease, childhood asthma, and type 2 diabetes. Quinoa is also a good source of fiber, and fiber from whole grains has been linked to a reduction in the risk of gallstones and breast cancer among women. Whole grains also contain a whole host of nutrients, phytonutrients, and antioxidants.

Another possible benefit of quinoa comes from its rich supply of magnesium and riboflavin. Magnesium, a mineral which helps to relax blood vessels, and riboflavin have been linked to the reduction of migraine headaches.

Quinoa is extremely versatile. It can be substituted for most grains in any dish, is quick cooking, easily digested, and is not heavy or sticky. It’s also perfectly suited for those with special health conditions. For those who are vegan or vegetarian, it is an excellent, amino acid-rich source of protein. For seniors, or those concerned about low iron levels, quinoa is an excellent source of iron. It’s also a great choice for diabetics, as it ranks low on the glycemic index.

What’s not to love about this amazing grain? It’s so easy to add into one’s daily diet, and the benefits are enormous. If only all healthy choices could be this simple.

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