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Quinoa: A Plant-Based Complete Protein and A Nutritional Powerhouse

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Quinoa: A Plant-Based Complete Protein and A Nutritional Powerhouse

Quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) has gained popularity in the last decade or so due to its nutritional profile and versatility in culinary use. Quinoa is a complete protein source, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids needed by the human body that the body cannot produce itself. This makes it an excellent source of protein, especially for vegetarians and vegans.

In this article, we will explore the origins of quinoa, its nutrient-dense properties, and the potential health benefits of consuming it. We will conclude the article with some culinary ideas for incorporating quinoa into your meals. 


What is Quinoa?

Quinoa is a highly nutrient-dense plant that has been cultivated in the Andean region of South America for more than 5,000 years. The Incans called it “chisaya mama” or mother grain. The quinoa we see as a grain-looking product is actually the seed of the plant. It is cooked similarly to other grains and is considered a pseudocereal grain

Quinoa is naturally gluten-free, making it a safe choice for individuals with gluten intolerance or celiac disease. It is high in protein, contains all the essential amino acids, has a low glycemic index, and high fiber content. Furthermore, it is an excellent plant-based source of various vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. 

It comes in many varieties; most commonly seen in our grocery markets as white, yellow, red and black quinoa. 

Nutrients Found in Quinoa

The table below displays the key nutritional facts of 1 cup (185 g) of cooked quinoa seed.

Additionally, quinoa is a good source of many vital micronutrients, including:

  1. Vitamins: Choline, Folate (B9), Riboflavin (B2), Thiamin (B1), Vitamin E
  2. Minerals: Calcium, Copper, Iron, Magnesium, Manganese, Phosphorus, Potassium, Selenium, Zinc
  3. Antioxidants & Phytochemicals: Polyunsaturated fatty acids, Kaempferol, Lutein, Quercetin, Zeaxanthin

The quinoa leaves are also edible, high in protein, and contain various micronutrients. 

Due to its nutritional composition and various health benefits, the United Nations General Assembly declared 2013 as the ”International Year of Quinoa."

Anti-Nutrients Found in Quinoa

It is important to know that quinoa also contains anti-nutritional compounds such as saponin, phytic acid, and oxalate: 


Saponin is the compound naturally found in quinoa plants. It acts as a repellent against birds and pests. However, it is the main compound that makes quinoa taste bitter and could cause digestive discomfort in some people. 

To reduce the saponin content and the bitterness, most commercially sold quinoa goes through various processes such as dehulling, wet washing, and dry milling. Thoroughly washing the seeds under water multiple times before cooking can help reduce the saponin content and bitterness further. 

Phytic acid: 

Phytic acid binds to various minerals like calcium, iron and zinc, preventing the body from absorbing these minerals. However, soaking quinoa and sprouting it has shown a significant decrease in the amount of phytic acid, allowing for better absorption of these minerals. 


Every 100 g of dry, uncooked, quinoa seed has 232 mg of oxalate. Consuming high amounts of dietary oxalate can lead to formation of calcium oxalate stones in the kidneys. Boiling, blanching or soaking quinoa can help reduce the oxalate content since oxalate is highly water-soluble like saponins and phytic acid. 

5 Potential Health Benefits of Quinoa 

1. Quinoa is a Complete Protein Source 

Quinoa is a complete protein source that provides all nine essential amino acids that the body needs. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. Quinoa is especially high in lysine, an essential amino acid typically low in other grains, and methionine, which is usually deficient in many legumes. This makes quinoa an excellent plant-based, complete protein source.

The body also absorbs the protein in quinoa very well. The protein biological value measures the proportion of protein absorbed by the body. Quinoa has a high protein biological value of 73%, which is comparable to that of beef at 74%. In contrast, white rice has a value of 56%, and wheat has 49% absorbability. 

2. Quinoa is Rich in Dietary Fiber

Quinoa is an excellent source of dietary fiber. One cup of cooked quinoa contains 5.18 grams of fiber providing a significant amount of daily recommended fiber intake. In comparison, one cup of cooked brown rice contains 3.51 grams of fiber. 

There are two main subtypes of fiber, soluble and insoluble fibers. About 22% of quinoa’s fiber content is soluble and 78% is insoluble. Soluble fiber dissolves in water, whereas insoluble fiber absorbs water. Adequate fiber in daily diet provides a feeling of satiety or fullness. Including sufficient fiber in the daily meals has many benefits including reducing the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. 

3. Quinoa Has Been Shown in Research to Improve Glucose Regulation

Various studies have shown that quinoa consumption can help regulate blood sugar levels, resulting in lower fasting and post-meal glucose levels. 

A systematic review of seven randomized clinical trials with a total of 258 adults was conducted to assess the efficacy of quinoa in reducing fasting blood glucose, body weight, and body mass index. The participants consumed anywhere from 15 to 50 grams of quinoa/day and were followed through between 28 to 180 days.

The results showed a significant association between increased quinoa intake and lower fasting blood glucose, seen notably when quinoa intake was nearly at 25 g/day. The authors concluded that their analysis showed beneficial effects of quinoa on blood glucose levels, and further larger studies would help confirm these results. 

Additionally, quinoa has a low glycemic index of 53, and it maintains low glycemic levels even after cooking. Foods with low glycemic index take longer to digest, leading to a smaller and slower effect on the rise of insulin and blood sugar levels versus foods with high glycemic index. Diets low in glycemic index have been shown to improve glucose levels and help with weight control and feeling of fullness. 

4. Quinoa Has Been Shown in Research to Reduce Cholesterol

Several studies have shown improvements in cholesterol markers and cardiovascular risk factors among participants consuming quinoa.

A randomized-controlled, double-blind, crossover study was conducted over a four-week period in forty healthy adults aged 50-75 years. In addition to their usual diet, the study group was given 15 g quinoa biscuits. The control arm consumed biscuits of the same weight made with wheat flour. After four weeks, the blood tests showed modest reductions in total cholesterol and LDL (the “bad” cholesterol) levels, showing favorable health improvements after the addition of quinoa to the daily diet.

A meta-analysis of five randomized, controlled trials with a total of 206 adult subjects was conducted to look at the effect of quinoa on cardiovascular disease risk factors. The results showed that the addition of quinoa to the diets significantly lowered the triglycerides, total cholesterol, and LDL levels. Reductions in body weight and insulin levels were also observed. This suggests that quinoa may be an effective option to prevent and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Additionally, quinoa contains a high proportion of healthy fats known as polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), specifically the essential fatty acids - linoleic acid (omega-6) and alpha-linolenic acid (omega-3).

Omega-3 fatty acids play many essential roles in our body functions, including regulating inflammation and improving cardiovascular health. Meanwhile, the omega-6 fatty acids play a role in our body’s blood clotting and immune response functions. Both these are essential fats that the body cannot produce and must be acquired via our diets. 

5. Quinoa Has Beneficial Antioxidant Properties

Twenty-one flavonols have been identified in quinoa. Of these, quercetin and kaempferol are the two key flavonols. Quercetin is the strongest polyphenol among all flavonoids found in quinoa. These compounds have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, helping promote overall health and wellness. It has been reported that certain flavonoids, such as quercetin and kaempferol, increase in concentration when quinoa is sprouted, particularly in yellow quinoa. 

How to Cook Quinoa 

Quinoa is quick-cooking and can be prepared similarly to rice, either in a rice cooker or on the stovetop. It is important to wash quinoa thoroughly to reduce the bitterness caused by saponins. Additionally, soaking or sprouting quinoa helps reduce the phytic acid content and increase the absorption of various minerals. 

Start with a ratio of 1:2 cups, combining 1 cup of washed quinoa with 2 cups of cooking liquid (water or broth), and adjust as needed based on the desired texture. Red and black quinoa varieties retain shape better than white and yellow varieties. 

Once cooked, quinoa develops a nutty flavor and has a fluffy texture. Additionally, it readily absorbs the flavors of spices, herbs, sauces, and dressings. 

Incorporating Quinoa: Easy Meal Ideas and Culinary Adventures from Around the World 

It is easy to make quinoa part of your daily meals and increase the nutritional value of your dishes. Here are some simple ideas to get started - 

  • Enjoy a warm breakfast bowl of quinoa, oats, and chia mixed in a porridge
  • Create a quinoa stir-fry with colorful seasonal vegetables 
  • Use quinoa as a base for salads; it holds its shape and texture well 
  • Substitute quinoa for rice as a side dish or incorporate it into rice and bean dishes
  • It is fun to watch quinoa pop, just like making popcorn, and use it as a crunchy topping for salads
  • Explore gluten-free baking by incorporating quinoa flour into your recipes

During the International Year of Quinoa, the United Nations collaborated with individuals from around the world to create a vast array of recipes to encourage exploration with quinoa. Chefs and cooks from many regions of the world came together to showcase quinoa-focused dishes with emphasis on ease of preparation along with utilizing local and global ingredients. 

Additionally, a recipe book featuring a collection of traditional Andean dishes was compiled to help bring the vast potential of quinoa use to the global audience.  


Key Takeaways

Quinoa is a well-balanced, plant-based, complete source of protein. It is nutrient-dense, providing adequate macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fat), and is rich in micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).

Quinoa has high fiber amounts and low glycemic index. Studies have shown that it can help improve glucose levels, reduce cholesterol markers and has beneficial antioxidant properties.

Quinoa is naturally gluten-free, easy to cook, and can be included in a variety of daily meals. Remember to wash quinoa thoroughly and soak or germinate it (if time permits) before cooking to reduce the bitterness. 

The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement or making any changes to your diet or exercise routine.
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