Quinoa – the Gluten Free Superfood fit for Outer Space!

20 Jun 2019 11:21 AM | Aliya Umm Omar (Administrator)

Climate change and increasing global food demand have created a need for crops that thrive in suboptimal growing conditions and provide quality nutrition. Quinoa, a stress-tolerant crop with a better nutritional profile than many kinds of cereal like rice and corn, has attracted attention for this reason. It’s now grown in more than 70 countries.

Quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) is a 7,000-year-old plant that originated in the mountainous regions of South America. While it is commonly known as an “ancient grain,” quinoa is technically not a grain or cereal grain, but a seed. Cereal grains like wheat, rice, and corn are grasses, and their nutritional value comes from the grass fruit. Quinoa is more closely related to spinach and chard and its nutritional value comes from the plant’s seed.

Quinoa comes from an annual flowering weed-like plant from the family Amaranthaceae, which includes other species like lamb's quarters, beetroot and amaranth. It is gluten-free, high in protein and one of the few plant foods that contain sufficient amounts of all nine essential amino acids. It is also high in fibre, magnesium, B vitamins, iron, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, vitamin E and various beneficial antioxidants.

Quinoa dates back three to four thousand years ago when the Incas first realised that the quinoa seed was fit for human consumption. Quinoa was considered “the gold of the Incas” because the Incas believed it increased the stamina of their warriors.

While most of us are used to seeing the more common white quinoa, there are actually about 120 varieties throughout the world. Three categories of quinoa have been commercialised for sale: red, white and black. It’s prepared like rice, but before boiling, all quinoa must first be soaked to remove the outer coating (pericarp), which contains bitter compounds (saponins).

White Quinoa – This is the most widely sold variety of quinoa, and takes the least amount of time to cook. It’s sometimes referred to as ivory quinoa.

Red Quinoa – Because it doesn’t easily lose its shape, cooks prefer using this type of quinoa in cold salads or other recipes where the texture of a distinct grain is preferred.

Black Quinoa – The taste of black quinoa is more different than the white and red varieties, with an earthy, sweet flavour profile. It takes the longest to cook, needing about 15–20 minutes to be completely done.

These days, you can find quinoa and quinoa products all over the world, especially in health food stores and restaurants that emphasise natural foods.

From beneath the earth to outer space, quinoa nutrition is so impressive that NASA even wants to use it for long-term space missions as a healthy, easily growable crop. United Nations (UN) declared 2013 "The International Year of Quinoa," due to its high nutrient value and potential to contribute to food security worldwide. It has been eaten for thousands of years in the Andes Mountains in South America and only recently became a trend food, even reaching superfood status.

Quinoa Benefits

Very Nutritious

Quinoa is rich in many important macronutrients, micronutrients, and other molecules (secondary metabolites) that can affect human health. Although quinoa is more nutritious than most grains, it shows a lot of variability in its nutritional composition. The strain of quinoa and where it’s grown impact its nutritional profile. That means nutrients in the quinoa you eat may vary from the values reported here and elsewhere:


Amount in 1 cup (185 grams) of cooked quinoa:


8 g


5 g


222 calories


4 g


39 g



2.8 mg (15% of the RDA*)


0.4 mg (18% of the RDA)


2 mg (13% of the RDA)


1.2 mg (58% of the RDA)


118 mg (30% of the RDA)


281 mg (28% of the RDA)


5.2 mg (7% of the RDA)


13 mg


318 mg (9% of the RDA)


Vitamin B1 (thiamine)

0.2 mg (13% of the RDA)

Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)

0.2 mg (12% of the RDA)

Vitamin B3 (niacin)

1.06 mg

Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid)

0.61 mg

Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine)

0.2 mg (11% of the RDA)

Vitamin B9 (folic acid)

23.5 – 78.1 mg (19% of the RDA)

Vitamin C (ascorbic acid)

4 – 16.4 mg

Vitamin E (tocopherols)

1.2 – 6 mg (6% of the RDA)

* Recommended Daily Allowance

High in Protein with a Complete Amino Acid Profile

Relative to most grains, quinoa has a high protein content (12.9 to 16.5% protein). It has more protein than rice, corn, oats, and barley, and about the same amount as wheat (14.3 to 15.4% protein).

Unlike wheat, quinoa is a complete protein. It contains all 9 essential amino acids, including twice the amount of lysine found in corn or wheat. Lysine is an essential amino acid that is not produced by the human body. As a result, lysine must be obtained through food consumption. Adults (>18 yrs) require 30 mg of lysine per kilogram of body weight every day. The problem is that many plant foods are deficient in certain essential amino acids, such as lysine. However, quinoa is an exception to this, being a rich source of lysine (4.6 to 6.6 grams per 100 grams). This makes it a good source of lysine for vegans, vegetarians, and undernourished populations.

Quinoa is gluten-free, has an amino acid profile similar to whole dried milk, and can provide over 180% of the recommended daily intake of essential amino acids.

High in Fibre

One study that looked at 4 varieties of quinoa found a range of 10–16 grams of fibre per every 100 grams. This equals 17–27 grams per cup, which is very high, more than twice as high as most grains. Boiled quinoa contains much less fibre, gram for gram because it absorbs so much water. The fibre comprises around 10% of quinoa seeds. Roughly 78% of that is insoluble fibre, which isn’t broken down in the intestines, and the other 22% is soluble. This gives quinoa a fibre profile similar to vegetables, legumes, and fruits.

High in Minerals

Quinoa is very high in all 4 minerals, particularly magnesium. It has a total mineral content (3.4%) higher than rice (0.5%), wheat (1.8%), and other cereals.

It is also low in phytic acid. This compound, common in many grains and vegetables, binds to the minerals in food and prevents them from being absorbed by the body. Since quinoa is low in phytic, it is a good source of easily absorbed minerals. By soaking and/or sprouting the quinoa prior to cooking, you can further reduce the phytic acid content and make these minerals more bio-available. Plus, soaking before cooking helps to remove some of the saponins, which helps get rid of the bitter flavour.

Fat Profile

On average, quinoa seeds are comprised of 5 to 7% fats. This can vary depending on the strain. The fats in quinoa seeds are mostly unsaturated (90%) and they have an omega-6 to the omega-3 ratio of 6/1, giving quinoa a better ratio than most plant-derived oils.

High in Phytonutrients 

Quinoa is also a rich source of beneficial phytonutrients. These are chemicals produced by plants that have specific effects on human health. For example, they can be anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, neuroprotective, anti-aging, and much more.





(β-sitosterol, campesterol, and stigmasterol)

118 grams per 100 grams

Lowers cholesterol 

Anti- inflammatory



(62 to 90% 20-hydroxyecdysone)

138 – 570 micrograms per gram

Anti- inflammatory

Anti- obesity

Anti- depressant

Increases insulin sensitivity


(quercetin* and kaempferol)

Up to 839 micrograms per gram each

Anti- inflammatory

Anti- diabetic



Glycine Betaine

3930 – 6000 micrograms per gram

Prevention of diabetes, obesity and heart disease

*Quercetin content is higher than in typical high-quercetin foods like cranberries. 

Rich in Antioxidants

Quinoa is rich in antioxidants such as Betalains, Vitamin E (tocopherols), Vitamin A (carotenoids) and Squalene, amongst many others. These are molecules that neutralise free radicals, reducing cellular damage in the body. Oxidative damage has been linked to heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, a variety of inflammatory diseases, and other negative health effects.

In a study of how different cooking techniques affect antioxidants in quinoa, the most antioxidants were preserved when quinoa was washed, then cooked in a pressure cooker, while the most antioxidants were lost when it was toasted.

Usually Gluten Free

Quinoa is a safe alternative to gluten-containing cereals for people with coeliac disease or non-coeliac gluten intolerance. A biochemical analysis of quinoa proteins found that they did not behave like the wheat proteins that are toxic to coeliacs (gliadins). Another study found that 19 coeliac patients had normal intestinal and blood test results after eating quinoa every day for 6 weeks.

Although quinoa varieties commercially available outside of South America are gluten-free, some traditional varieties are not. When 15 different strains were tested, 2 of them (Ayacuchana and Pasankalla) had the same effect as wheat proteins on coeliac intestinal cells.

Lowers Cholesterol and May Prevent Heart Disease

In a study of 35 overweight women, participants who ate quinoa flakes every day for 4 weeks had reduced total cholesterol (191 to 181 mg/dl) and LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol (129 to 121 mg/dl), compared to those who ate cornflakes. Both groups had reduced triglycerides (112 to 108 mg/dl in the quinoa group).

In a study of coeliac patients, those who ate quinoa every day for 6 weeks also saw a small reduction in triglycerides (from 0.8 to 0.79 mmol/l) and total cholesterol (4.6 to 4.3 mmol/l).

In another study of 22 students aged 18 to 45 years, triglycerides, total cholesterol, and bad cholesterol were reduced after eating a quinoa cereal bar every day.

May Lower Blood Sugar and Improve Diabetes

Although there haven’t been any human clinical trials examining the effects of quinoa consumption on diabetes, a study on sugar-fed rats found quinoa reduced blood glucose levels and oxidative stress. Hyperglycaemic mice found quinoa reduced fasting blood glucose levels and prevented weight gain.

Quinoa also reduced the number of free radicals in these rats, which cause damage to cells. Additionally, it improved antioxidant capabilities in the rats’ blood, heart, lungs, kidneys, pancreas, and testes. This indicates that quinoa reduces the negative effects of sugar on the body by protecting it from oxidative stress.

20-hydroxyecdysone, a phytoecdysteroid, also has multiple anti-diabetic effects. Quinoa consumption lowered blood glucose levels and increased insulin in diabetic rats.

Approximately 58 to 64% of the quinoa seed (by weight) is starch (D-xylose, amylose, and maltose). It also has a low glycaemic index of 53, which is considered low, making it suitable for diabetics.

Aid Weight Loss

In a study of 30 pre-diabetic patients, the group that ate quinoa for 28 days felt full and satisfied and lost weight, compared to a control group who didn’t eat quinoa. Animal studies have found that both quinoa extract and whole quinoa protected mice from gaining body fat, even when they were fed a high-fat diet.

The relatively high protein content of quinoa may play a part in this as it increases satiety, causing people to eat less. High-protein diets also burn more calories. However, quinoa also contains 20-hydroxyecdysone, a steroid hormone which has shown to interfere with several genes responsible for fat storage, inflammation, and insulin resistance.

Recipes for Health

A good thoroughly cooked quinoa recipe has a light and soft consistency similar to couscous or bulgur wheat with a mild, nutty flavour and a satisfying crunch. Sometimes, when quinoa is not pre-rinsed, a slightly bitter taste can be detected. This is from saponins that may be present on the seed coating. Soaking the seeds for two hours with an acid medium, like apple cider vinegar, is a good way to remove most of saponins but also the phytic acid. 

Classic Cooked Quinoa


·       1 Cup quinoa grain

·       2 Cup filtered water

·       Pinch Himalayan salt or Celtic sea salt

·       Pre- soaking water with 1tsp apple cider vinegar (or lemon juice)


1.      Add the dry quinoa to a bowl and pour enough filtered water over the top to cover it about a few inches.

2.      Stir in apple cider vinegar or lemon juice and allow it to sit for about 2 hours.

3.      Thoroughly strain the soaked quinoa in a fine mesh strainer.

4.      In a glass or ceramic pot add 2 cups water and bring to a boil.

5.      Add strained quinoa and salt, place a lid on top and reduce heat to the lowest flame setting.

6.      Leave undisturbed for 15-20 minutes or until no liquid is present when you tilt the pot.

7.      Turn the flame off and let the quinoa sit with lid on for another 5-10 minutes.

You can use quinoa the same way you would use rice, as a side dish to vegetables, tempeh, tofu or meat protein. It can likewise be incorporated into many recipes, like sushi or curried vegetable sautés. Quinoa also makes a lovely cold salad ingredient with chopped raw veggies, marinated in a dressing. It is also a nice grain to add to hot soups or as a breakfast porridge, with a little coconut oil, shredded coconut and a natural sweetener.


Quinoa is considered a safe staple grain to consume on a regular basis. In rare cases, however, some individuals are sensitive to saponin residues that may be present in the uncooked seeds, which can cause mild digestive upset. This effect is usually avoided by soaking and rinsing techniques as well as by thoroughly cooking the grain before consumption.

Quinoa is also quite high in oxalates, which reduce the absorption of calcium and can cause problems for certain individuals with recurring kidney stones.

To Sum Up…

A complete protein and fantastic wheat-free alternative, the demand for quinoa has risen sharply in recent years. There’s truly no denying it; the health benefits of quinoa are real and plentiful. From being one of the most protein-rich plant foods with a nutrition profile fit for outer space it’s no wonder that it’s been given the superfood status.

Quinoa is gluten-free, so it’s great for those intolerant to gluten; and it has a low glycaemic index, so it’s great for  diabetics too. Given it is high in iron and magnesium, quinoa can have wonderful effects on an individual’s metabolism. The seeds brim with phytonutrients high in antioxidants, and loaded with beneficial vitamins and minerals, all in all providing protection against oxidative damage and  inflammation which gives rise to diseases such as heart disease, weight gain, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and cancer. Antioxidants fight the free radicals that are responsible for early aging as well as improving hair and skin health. So if you’ve got a chance to try a gluten-free, nutrition-packed food that can be eaten like rice and used in all sorts of ways, plus improve your health from strength to strength, wouldn’t you try it?








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