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Becca Sirek

This ancient grain has gained popularity amongst modern meals, but what exactly is quinoa? And what’s so special about it when it comes to health?

Although it’s classified as a grain, quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) is technically not a grain at all; it’s actually what is called a “pseudo-cereal”—a name for foods that are prepared and consumed as grains, but botanically are neither grains nor grasses. Harvested from three to nine foot tall magenta stalks, quinoa is natively grown high in the Andes of South America and just recently grown in high-altitude areas near the Rockies.

A wide variety of quinoa exists yet only three types are predominately cultivated to be commercially available: white, red and black. White quinoa, the type most commonly found in grocery stores, has a slight nutty flavor with a light, fluffy texture. Red quinoa has a bolder nutty flavor, while black quinoa has a slightly earthier taste and a bit crunchier texture. But regardless of their color, quinoa supplies impressive nourishment.

Quinoa is a whole-grain, which means it provides more protein, fiber and many more important vitamins and minerals compared to refined-grains. In fact, quinoa is one of few plant-based sources of a complete protein. This means it provides a balance of all nine essential amino acids necessary for bone and muscle growth and repair. Quinoa packs 5g of fiber per cooked cup (that’s a lot!) and it’s a good source of iron and magnesium—these minerals help red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body as well as help the body convert food into usable energy. What’s more, quinoa is naturally gluten-free. These powerful little nuggets are a great addition to any diet, but are an ideal solution to those following a gluten-free, vegan or vegetarian diet that are looking to boost their protein and fiber intake.

Quinoa is delicious on it’s own and can be substituted anywhere whole grains are used—it’s a nutritious alternative to couscous and white rice. Its subtle flavor marries well with all sorts of ingredients, sweet or savory. Use quinoa as a hot breakfast cereal or try using uncooked quinoa to coat chicken cutlets instead of breadcrumbs! My personal favorite is mixing spicy southwestern seasoning into cooked quinoa, topped with black beans, roasted peppers, cilantro and fresh squeezed lime. 

AUTHOR: BECCA SIREK. Becca Sirek is a student studying Nutrition at the University of Minnesota and guest contributor to The Everyday Table blog.