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BFC Nutrition: Quinoa PDF Print E-mail

by Chris Ellis, Staff Nutritionist
March 2013

Quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) is a relatively new grain in North America compared to wheat, oats, and barley.  I do not have a long history with it myself since I have only been familiar with it in the last decade of my life. It has however been around for thousands of years in the southern part of this hemisphere and it has been a central part of the diet of many who live high up in the mountains of Peru, Bolivia, Columbia, and Ecuador. The Incas recognized it as sacred and there is reference to it in their culture as “mother of all grains.” The presence of quinoa (it often played a major part in the ceremonies of indigenous people) was ridiculed by the Spanish colonists. The Spaniards even went to the point of forbidding its production for a period of time and forcing local indigenous farmers to grow wheat instead of quinoa.

Quinoa is actually not a true grain but botanically a grain-like seed and is a member of the Goosefoot family. It was domesticated in the area of the Andes mountains, primarily in Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. The seeds are eaten as well as the leaves, which are much like amaranth but they are not available commercially. Quinoa is a plant that can be easily grown in specific areas of the Andes due to its compatibility with the soil and climate conditions. There is research being conducted on growth in other areas such as the mountains of Colorado and mountainous areas of the west but the main sources of quinoa are the same countries where it was originally cultivated. Quinoa has become very popular in the last few years in the U.S., Europe, and China, and this has caused the price to triple in the last three years. There is concern over inflation and its impact on availability and food security for the local people in the mountainous regions where it is grown since it is a main part of their diet.

Nutritionally speaking, quinoa is an unusual super grain (again, actually a seed). It has one of the highest protein contents of grains since it contains the amino acid lysine, which most grains are missing, therefore it is considered a complete protein. It has one of the highest fat contents and provides primarily monounsaturated and omega-3 fats. It also has a great vitamin E presence, providing some types of the vitamin that are absent in other grains. It is easy to digest and is gluten free. It is a significant source of fiber and phosphorus and also contains a good amount of manganese, calcium, iron, copper, and magnesium.

All of quinoa’s health benefits have yet to be determined since it is a relative newcomer to this country and much of the research on its benefits have been done mainly with animals. The expectations from its nutritional profile indicate there is strong promise for prevention of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Quinoa contains two main antioxidants, quercitin and kaempferol, along with an array of smaller amounts of many others.  These plant compounds have all shown to be protective against inflammation so that is just one more reason to add it to your diet. The year 2013 has been declared by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations as the International Year of Quinoa due to its rich nutrient profile, biodiversity, and its role in food security worldwide. Perhaps with this attention there will be a priority in discovering other areas where quinoa can be grown so there will be an adequate supply for its local population who rely on it as a staple nutritious food.    
Quinoa has a bitter substance on the outer part of the seeds known as saponins and these have antioxidant properties but are not very tasty. Saponins are water soluble and can be rinsed off easily with cold water but this should be done before cooking. Soaking quinoa before cooking also reduces the presence of saponins and the water should then be discarded. Quinoa can be cooked like rice with double the amount of liquid as grain/seed. It cooks in about 15 minutes. Toasting quinoa seeds lightly until slightly browned brings out the flavor and gives it a nuttier taste.  Quinoa should be stored in a cool area especially during the warmer months due to its high fat content, which increases its risk for becoming rancid. Quinoa comes in a variety of colors:  yellow, red, and tricolor (a combination of black, yellow, and red). The yellow variety is cheaper but they all cost more than grains grown domestically primarily because it is grown far away and harvested by hand. Quinoa can be used in salads, soups, as a hot cereal, and it can be made into burgers too. I found this recipe in the Brattleboro Food Co-op cookbook that I modified a little but it contains local ingredients to offset the quinoa’s far-away origin. It is simple to make, has great flavor, and compliments a soup or main dish well.