The goosefoot plant, chisaya mama (the mother of all grains)
Although we cook and eat quinoa like many other grains, botanically speaking, it's a relative of spinach, beets and chard. The part eaten is actually the seed, cooked like rice, which is why quinoa is gluten-free. With the ability to adapt to the harsh environment of the Andean altiplano, quinoa has been traditionally consumed by several of the indigenous peoples of South America including the Incas, Quechuas, Tiahuancota and Mapuche. The seeds were prepared like rice, the leaves eaten as a salad green or steamed like spinach and the seeds were also fermented to make “chicha” – a famous South American ceremonial beer.
Extremely high in fibre, one serving of quinoa will provide around 5 grams of insoluble fibre. Whilst the benefits of fibre to the digestive system are well known, quinoa also contains the amino acid “glutamic acid”. This can be converted in to glutamine which provides the primary source of energy for cells in the intestinal tract and keeps the mucosal lining healthy. It is also rich in other B vitamins which support digestion – Thiamin (B1) is essential to the production of hydrochloric acid and Riboflavin (B2) contributes to the normal development of cells within the digestive tract.
Complete Plant Based Protein
Quinoa is one of the few plants that provide all of the essential amino acids that our bodies cannot make. It also has prebiotic properties which help to feed the beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract – making this protein easier to digest. Proteins are the main building blocks of the body used to make muscles, tendons, organs and skin. They are also used to make enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters and various tiny molecules that serve various functions – without protein our bodies would biochemically dismantle. A typical serving of quinoa will provide 8 grams of high quality plant protein.
Containing thousands of trace nutrients, two powerful antioxidant compounds found in quinoa are quercetin and kaempferol. These two flavonoids seem to act synergistically to inhibit free radical formation thus protecting the body from oxidative stress. Other antioxidants worthy of note are; ferulic, coumaric, hydroxybenzoic and vanillic acid. Excessive oxidative stress has been associated with numerous health conditions including; chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, diabetes, anxiety, depression, insomnia and more.
Quinoa contains no trans-fats and is high in fatty acids such as oleic acid – a healthy monounsaturated fat – which helps to reduce blood pressure and increases fat burning. It also provides a healthy dose of ALA (alpha linolenic acid), which as well as being uniquely fat and water soluble, it is antioxidant, protects cells, fights disease and restores essential vitamin levels. In one study published in the European Journal of Nutrition, consuming quinoa led to lower levels of triglycerides and free fatty-acids, which is associated with a lower risk of heart disease.
A typical serving can be anywhere from 100 - 150g. This needs to be washed thoroughly (see precautions) before cooking.
Known as the “Gold of the Incas”, quinoa was almost wiped out by the Spanish Conquistadors in the 1500's - they outlawed its use and banned its cultivation in their efforts to dominate and suppress the Incan culture. Fortunately, small pockets of wild quinoa survived the conquistadors' annihilation in high altitudes of the Andean mountains. It was a sacred plant to the Incas, with legend telling of how the Incan Emporer would ceremoniously plant the first quinoa seeds each year. Its hardy nature and ability to grow in harsh environments, along with its nutrient strength made quinoa a staple among the indigenous peoples of South America for 1000's of years.
With an exceptional nutrient profile, quinoa is rich in Vitamins; E, B1, B2 and B9 (folate). High in Minerals; Potassium, Phosphorus, Magnesium, Iron, Zinc, Copper, Manganese and Selenium.
Quinoa contains saponins - chemicals produced by the quinoa plant as a natural protection from pests. They have a bitter flavour and can be a mild digestive irritant. Saponins can be removed by soaking and rinsing in cold water - they produce a soapy, frothy consistency and the quinoa should be rinsed until this disappears.