Quinoa 101: Nutrition Facts and Health Benefits
Quinoa is the seed of a plant known scientifically as Chenopodium quinoa.
It is high in many nutrients, and is often referred to as a "superfood."
Quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) is actually not a grain, but a pseudo-cereal, a seed that is prepared and consumed like a grain.
Quinoa has a crunchy texture and nutty flavor. It is also gluten-free, so it can be enjoyed by individuals who are sensitive to gluten or wheat.
Quinoa seeds are flat, oval-shaped and usually pale yellow, but the color can range from pink to black, and the taste can vary from bitter to sweet (2).
It is usually boiled and consumed as a side dish, as breakfast porridge, added to salads, or used to thicken soups.
The year 2013 was designated "The International Year of Quinoa" by the United Nations, because of its potential to contribute to food security worldwide (4).
Even though quinoa technically isn't a grain, it still counts as a "whole grain" food.
Cooked quinoa consists of water (71.6%), carbohydrates (21.3%), protein (4.4%) and fat (1.92%).
One cup of cooked quinoa (185 grams) contains 222 calories.
The table below contains detailed information on the nutrients in quinoa (5).
Carbohydrates make up 21% of cooked quinoa, which is comparable to barley and rice.
Quinoa has a relatively low glycemic index score of 53, which means that it should not cause a rapid spike in blood sugar after consumption (9).
Fibers occupy 10% of the dry weight of cooked quinoa, mostly consisting of insoluble fibers (80-90%), such as cellulose (10).
Quinoa also provides some resistant starch, which feeds the beneficial bacteria in the gut, promoting the formation of short-chain fatty acids, improving gut health, and cutting the risk of disease (16, 17).
Bottom line: The carbs in quinoa consist mainly of starch, insoluble fibers and small amounts of sugars. Quinoa also contains some resistant starch, which escapes digestion and feeds the friendly gut bacteria.
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, and proteins are the building blocks of all tissues in our body.
Some of the amino acids are referred to as "essential" because of our body's inability to produce them, making it essential to acquire them from the diet.
It is exceptionally high in the amino acid lysine, which is usually lacking in the plant kingdom. It is also high in methionine and histidine, making it an excellent plant-based protein source (1, 2, 3).
Quinoa does not contain gluten, and is therefore a suitable alternative for those who are sensitive or allergic to gluten.
Bottom line: Quinoa is relatively high in protein compared to other grains, and provides all the essential amino acids. The protein is considered to be comparable to casein, a high-quality protein from dairy products.
Quinoa contains about 2 grams of fat in 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of cooked quinoa.
Listed below are the main vitamins and minerals in quinoa:
- Manganese: Found in high amounts in whole grains, this trace mineral is essential for metabolism, growth and development (28).
- Phosphorus: Often found in protein-rich foods, this mineral is essential for bone health and maintenance of various body tissues (29).
- Copper: A mineral that is often lacking in the Western diet, important for heart health (30).
- Folate: One of the B-vitamins, essential for cell function and tissue growth. Folate is considered particularly important for pregnant women (31, 32).
- Iron: An essential mineral that performs many important functions in the body, such as transporting oxygen in red blood cells.
- Magnesium: Important for many processes in the body and is often considered to be insufficient in the Western diet (33).
- Zinc: A mineral that is important for overall health, and participates in many chemical reactions in the body (34).
Bottom line: Quinoa is a good source of several minerals, including manganese, phosphorus, copper, folate, iron, magnesium and zinc.
Quinoa contains many plant compounds that contribute to its flavor and health effects.
Here are the main ones:
- Saponin: Plant glycosides that protect quinoa seeds against insects and other threats. They are bitter tasting and considered toxic, and are usually eliminated with soaking, washing or roasting before cooking (2, 35).
- Quercetin: A powerful polyphenol antioxidant, which may help protect against various diseases, such as heart diseases, osteoporosis and certain forms of cancer (36, 37, 38).
- Kaempferol: A polyphenol antioxidant that may reduce the risk of chronic diseases, such as cancer (39, 40).
- Squalene: A precursor of steroids and an antioxidant in the body (41).
- Phytic acid: An antinutrient that may inhibit the absorption of minerals, such as iron and zinc. Phytic acid can be reduced by soaking or sprouting the quinoa before cooking (42).
- Oxalates: They may bind with calcium, reduce its uptake and increase the risk of kidney stone formation in sensitive individuals (43).
Bitter quinoa varieties are richer in antioxidants than sweeter varieties, but both are good sources of antioxidants and minerals.
One study concluded that quinoa had the highest antioxidant content of 10 cereals, pseudocereals and legumes (44).
Bottom line: Quinoa is high in many plant compounds, especially antioxidants. Some of the undesirable plant compounds can be eliminated with soaking, washing or roasting.
Being extremely nutritious and rich in many minerals and plant compounds, quinoa can definitely be a healthy addition to the diet.
Some data shows that adding quinoa to the diet can increase its overall nutritional value, and may help to reduce blood sugar levels and lower blood triglycerides.
Lower Blood Sugar Levels
Individuals with type 2 diabetes are unable to use insulin effectively, causing high blood sugar levels and all sorts of complications.
A study showed that quinoa, fed to rats on a high-fructose diet, reduced most of the adverse effects caused by the fructose, all of which are associated with type 2 diabetes. It lowered blood cholesterol by 26%, triglycerides by 11% and blood sugar levels by 10% (52).
One human study compared the effects of quinoa with traditional gluten-free wheat products.
Quinoa lowered both blood triglycerides and free fatty acids, and had a smaller impact on blood sugar levels than gluten-free pasta, gluten-free bread and traditional bread (53).
Bottom line: Quinoa may reduce blood cholesterol, blood sugar levels and triglycerides. It has a smaller impact on blood sugar levels than other gluten-free foods.
May Help With Weight Loss
Quinoa has many properties that make it a weight loss friendly food.
It is higher in protein than similar foods, such as rice, corn and whole wheat (5).
Quinoa is higher in fiber than many whole grain foods.
Bottom line: Quinoa has many qualities that make it a weight loss friendly food. It is high in protein and fiber, and has a relatively low glycemic index value.
Quinoa is Gluten-Free
As a gluten-free pseudocereal, quinoa is suitable for individuals who are intolerant or allergic to gluten, such as those with celiac disease (3).
Many researchers have studied the effects of including quinoa in a gluten-free diet.
Quinoa-based products are well received, and may therefore be a suitable dietary alternative to wheat, both in its original form and in products like bread or pasta (63).
Bottom line: Quinoa is gluten-free, is well accepted as an alternative to wheat, and has been shown to increase the nutrient and antioxidant value of gluten-free diets.
You can read more about the health benefits of quinoa in this article.
Quinoa is usually well tolerated and no existing data shows any adverse effects.
Similar to most other cereals and grains, quinoa contains phytates.
Phytates may reduce the absorption of minerals like iron and zinc (3).
These foods may contribute to kidney stone formation in sensitive individuals (64).
These effects can be reduced by rinsing and soaking quinoa before cooking.
Bottom line: Quinoa is generally well tolerated, but it contains phytates and oxalates. They may reduce the absorption of minerals and contribute to kidney stone formation in some individuals.
Quinoa is higher in nutrients than most other grains, and is also relatively high in quality protein.
It contains high amounts of vitamins, minerals and plant compounds, and is especially high in antioxidants - even higher than cranberries!
Quinoa is gluten free, may help to lower blood sugar levels and is very weight loss friendly.
If you want to increase the nutrient content of your diet, replacing other grains (like rice or wheat) with quinoa may be a good start.