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Quinoa, the rest of the story...Part 1, Nutrition

July 10, 2012

My post on quinoa yesterday generated substantial interest–likes, reblogs and comments. Though I promised to show the process from harvest to table, I detoured, took off my garden gloves and decided to speak as a dietitian, my day job. (See About.) Stay tuned for the Part 2, the processing of quinoa.

Many of us enjoy the nutty flavor, texture and versatility of quinoa (keen-wah). Recipes abound and so do health claims for this newer addition to the American diet. Native peoples in the Andes cultivated quinoa some 5000 years ago. Unfortunately, it was marginalized with the introduction of barley and wheat.

Quinoa in flower. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

As a dietitian, I can’t ignore the hype, but also have read enough about quinoa from reputable sources to believe it is worthy of inclusion in a varied diet. The United Nations has declared 2013 the International Year of Quinoa.

Read a short summary from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) explaining why they think quinoa, an ancient grain can contribute to world food security. Quinoa adapts to adverse environmental conditions such as cold and drought and differing conditions of humidity, altitude and topography. The UN envisions expansion of the crop to other continents and asserts quinoa has potential to contribute to food security. For more detailed information about quinoa read this FAO document.

Quinoa in Peru. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Quinoa is a seed, but is often substituted for grains in recipes. As a seed, the profile of minerals differs some from whole grains. The nutrient profiles of brown rice (long grain, cooked) can be compared to quinoa (cooked) in these links to USDA’s nutrient database. At this level, the differences are not remarkable.

Often touted as higher in protein, one cup brown rice has five grams while quinoa has eight. Not a substantial difference. Quinoa, however is the only plant food that contains all eight essential amino acids. These amino acids are located in the nucleus of the seed, unlike rice or wheat, where they are found in the exosperm or hull, which is often removed in processing. The FAO technical document notes that the biological value of the quinoa protein is comparable to casein, the principal protein in milk. Additional nutritional value comes when combined with legumes and grains.

Quinoa seeds. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Another nutrition advantage may be in bioactive compounds present in quinoa which may confer important health benefits, yet to be fully elucidated. Some of the phytochemicals in quinoa may have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.  Also, quinoa contains no gluten and can be processed into flour.

I’ll wait expectantly to see what research shows and look forward to 2013, The International Year of Quinoa.

Search your favorite internet sources for quinoa recipes. Read more about using quinoa and whole grains at my favorite nutrition blog, Nutrition Unplugged (Janet Helm, Registered Dietitian).

Quinoa, the rest of the story...Part 2, Processing

Harvest Monday: The Quinoa Saga