Christopher Marinangeli PhD, RD
Sr. Manager of Nutrition Science & Regulatory Affairs
Native to the South American Andes, the use of quinoa can be traced as far back as 5000-7000 years.1; 2 Quinoa was a staple food among the Incas to which it was referred to as the “mother grain.”3 Following the introduction of alternative cereal grains from Europe by the Spanish, the use of quinoa as a food source had diminished.1 However, in recent years quinoa has experienced a resurgence in popularity; and, while South America remains the most prominent producer of quinoa, quinoa is also harvested in Canada, China, India and various regions of Europe.1
Cereal grains, such as wheat, barley, rye and oats, are seeds that are harvested from grasses. Although quinoa is a seed and, in appearance, resembles a cereal grain, quinoa is harvested from the fruit of the broadleaf quinoa plant. Therefore, quinoa is sometimes referred to as a pseudo-cereal.2 While quinoa is characterized as a whole grain, given its long history of use, quinoa has also been referred to as an “ancient grain.1; 2”
The re-emergence of quinoa as a sought-after food source is primarily due to its nutritional composition. Compared to refined carbohydrates, foods that include complex carbohydrates from unrefined whole grains are more slowly digested. Typically, whole grains that also provide significant levels of dietary fibre are ideal. Like other whole grains, quinoa contains digestible complex carbohydrates and dietary fibre.
Some research suggests that a higher intake of whole grains is a marker of a healthy diet.4 Furthermore, some research also suggests that diets containing higher levels of fibre can help provide an array of benefits including regularity5 and weight management.6; 7 In general, quinoa can be used to contribute to the whole grain and fibre content of a healthy diet.
The quality of protein in quinoa has garnered significant attention. Proteins are comprised of amino acids; and amino acids that must be attained from the diet are called essential amino acids. Proteins that contain the right balance of essential amino acids are designated as complete proteins.8 Given that animal proteins are the most readily available sources of complete protein, it is recommended that vegetarians, including vegans, mix-and-match plant-based sources of protein. While few plant-based proteins are designated as a complete protein,8 quinoa is one of a handful of exceptions; and is considered a high-quality protein source.9; 10 Therefore, quinoa could be a useful dietary option for helping vegetarians and non-vegetarians attain all of the essential amino acids. When used in dry form, as a flour for example, a half cup of quinoa contains ~12 grams of protein 2; 11; 12 and, if used in significant amounts, could increase the protein quality of dry baked goods. However, a half cup of quinoa that is cooked in boiling water contains ~2.5 grams of protein.10 The lower level of protein in the boiled quinoa is due to the quinoa absorbing substantial moisture. Therefore, in addition to quinoa, diets that contain a variety of protein sources will ensure that adequate levels of protein and amino acids are consumed daily.
In addition to being a source of quality protein and carbohydrate, quinoa also contains substantial levels of various vitamins and minerals. For instance, one cup (250 ml) cooked quinoa is a source of thiamin (vitamin B1), riboflavin (vitamin B2), niacin (vitamin B3), pantothenic acid (vitamin B5) and vitamin B6; a good source of iron and zinc; and an excellent source of magnesium and folate.10; 13
Functional foods are foods that give rise to health benefits beyond providing nutritional value. These benefits are usually the reduction of risk factors for life-style related diseases, such as cardiovascular disease or diabetes. As with any “new” food, curiosity around the benefit of quinoa for reducing disease risk factors is of interest. However, given that the widespread use of quinoa is relatively new, few human studies have investigated the specific health benefits of quinoa; and more research is needed to confirm and further support the effects of quinoa on disease risk factors.
Given that quinoa has complex carbohydrates, fibre, high quality protein, and vitamins and minerals, it is no surprise that, in recent years, the popularity of quinoa has increased substantially.