Health Benefits of Quinoa Seeds (Gluten-Free Superfoods Series)
Botanically known as Chenopodium quinoa, quinoa is an annual plant native to the Andean region of Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Colombia. It is primarily grown for its gluten-free edible seeds which can be white/ivory, red/purple or black/brown in color. In recent years, quinoa has received a lot of attention from health-conscious consumers due its purported health benefits and unique nutrient profile (it is exceptionally rich in high quality protein, minerals and B vitamins). It has even been dubbed the 'Andean Superfood' and the 'King of Cereal Grains', although technically, quinoa is not a cereal crop but rather a pseudoceral or seed crop.
Botanically, quinoa is related to many other healthy foods including spinach, beets, Swiss chard and epazote. It is also closely related to the up-and-coming superfood kaniwa (Chenopodium pallidicaule), a pseudo-grain that shares many of the nutritional and health benefits of quinoa seeds.
Below, we take an in-depth look at why quinoa seeds are believed to be so good for you.
Gluten-Free Superfood Packed with Minerals and B Vitamins
With more than 600 million tons of wheat produced every year, wheat is one of the most popular cereals in the world (along with corn and rice). Whole-grain wheat is also an important dietary source of B vitamins and minerals such as iron, magnesium, zinc, copper, phosphorus, manganese and selenium. Unfortunately, however, the gluten in wheat is also a common cause of gastrointestinal problems such as bloating, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and flatulence.
Quinoa, by contrast, is naturally gluten-free; yet, it contains truckloads of B vitamins and essential minerals such as iron, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, zinc, copper, manganese and selenium. Provided that you buy quinoa seeds that have not been cross-contaminated with gluten-containing grains during processing or transportation, you can safely use quinoa as a gluten-free substitute for grains like wheat, spelt, barley and rye. In cookie and cake recipes, you can usually replace all the wheat flour with quinoa flour (available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk ).
Source of High-Quality Protein
One the factors that have earned quinoa its superfood status is its relatively high protein content. And, not only does quinoa provide a hearty helping of protein (11-15% of its weight is protein), the protein it contains is also considered to be of high quality. This is illustrated by the remarkably high protein digestibility score of quinoa (92%), as well as the diversity in its amino acid composition. Indeed, quinoa seeds contain significant amounts of all essential amino acids, including lysine which is typically found only in small amounts in grains.
As you may already know, amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, and in order to fulfill your body's protein needs, you need to provide it with adequate amounts of all essential amino acids.
Sprouted Quinoa Seeds Are Supercharged with Antioxidants
A study published in the August 2009 issue of the Journal of Medicinal Food evaluated the antioxidant activity of ten Peruvian foods (five grains, three pseudograins and two legumes) and found that among the tested foods, quinoa had the highest antioxidant activity in vitro. These findings are not surprising as quinoa is known to be an excellent source of flavonoids, one of the most researched classes of antioxidants. The predominant flavonoids in quinoa are quercetin and kaempferol, but some varieties have also been shown to contain notable levels of myricetin and isorhamnetin.
In another study, the antioxidant potential of products made with quinoa and another pseudograin, buckwheat, were compared with both wheat products and gluten-free products made with rice, corn and potato flour. The researchers found that products made with quinoa or buckwheat contained significantly more antioxidants than products made with the other gluten-free starches or with wheat. The antioxidant potential of quinoa was also found to increase when the seeds were sprouted prior to use.
See Also: Comparison: Quinoa vs Buckwheat
Cardiovascular Benefits of Quinoa
Above, we established that quinoa seeds are an excellent source of antioxidants. But why exactly are antioxidant-rich foods, such as quinoa, good for you?
One of the most important potential health benefits of eating antioxidant-rich foods is protection against cardiovascular disease, a leading cause of death in Western countries. Antioxidants, such as the flavonoids found in quinoa, are believed to provide cardiovascular benefits due to their ability to neutralize free radicals, highly reactive molecules that cause damage to your body at the cellular level.
Antioxidants aside, quinoa is also a good source of some of the best cardiotonic nutrients (heart health protecting nutrients), including folate, fiber and copper.
How to Maximize the Health Benefits of Quinoa
Tip 1: Give red quinoa a try. Although it is usually easier to find white (yellow) quinoa in the shops, red quinoa is equally tasty – and it appears to have an added benefit: a study published in the August 2012 issue of the journal Food & Nutrition Sciences found that red quinoa seeds were superior to their yellow counterparts in terms of antioxidant capacity and flavonoid content.
Tip 2: Before cooking quinoa seeds, wash them thoroughly under running water to remove saponins, bitter substances that can act as anti-nutrients.
Tip 3: Sprouting (soaking) whole quinoa seeds before use has been shown to improve their antioxidant potential; this can also improve the nutritional value of the seeds as soaking breaks down phytic acid, an anti-nutrient that is known to hinder the absorption of many vital minerals.
Tip 4: Also use other grains and pseudograins, no matter how much you love quinoa. Rotating vegetables, grains, and seeds helps ensure your diet remains varied.
1. USDA's Nutrient Database for Standard Reference.
2. L. Ranilla et al (2009). Evaluation of indigenous grains from the Peruvian Andean region for antidiabetes and antihypertension potential using in vitro methods. Journal of Medicinal Food, 12 (4):704-13.
3. R. Repo-Carrasco-Valencia (2011). Andean indigenous food crops: nutritional value and Bioactive Compounds. Department of Biochemistry and Food Chemistry, University of Turku.
4. L. Alvarez-Jubete et al (2010). Polyphenol composition and in vitro antioxidant activity of amaranth, quinoa buckwheat and wheat as affected by sprouting and baking. Food Chemistry, 119 (2): 770-778.