Chow Line: 'Mother grain' quinoa a complete protein (for 10/5/08)
In a recent column, you mentioned that soy is the only plant-based food that's considered a complete protein. I thought quinoa was, too.
Ah, you are right! Quinoa, the seed of a plant related to leafy greens such as Swiss chard, beets and spinach, is considered a grain -- and, in fact, it is a whole grain with all of the health benefits that come with that distinction.
Like many carbohydrate-based foods, quinoa also contains protein. But, for a grain, quinoa has a particularly high protein content, and that protein has a full complement of essential amino acids -- particularly lysine, which other grains are short of. That makes it a complete protein, comparable to that in meat and dairy products.
Quinoa, pronounced KEEN-wah, is native to the Andean mountain regions in South America. It was considered sacred by the Incas. In fact, according to a 1989 National Research Council report, Lost Crops of the Incas, the crop was considered so important that each year, the Inca emperor broke the soil with a golden spade and planted the first quinoa seed. The Incas called quinoa the "mother grain."
Quinoa's mild flavor is reminiscent of a cross between couscous and brown rice. Its low gluten content makes it suitable for people who suffer from celiac disease and can't digest wheat, rye, barley or several other grains. It's hardly a kitchen staple, but it is gaining in popularity and often can be found in the health foods section of grocery stores.
Besides its high protein content (1 cup of cooked quinoa has 8 grams of protein, compared to 5 grams in a cup of brown rice and 3.5 grams in a cup of barley), quinoa is a good source of phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, copper, zinc and iron. A cup of cooked quinoa has 220 calories, 3.5 grams of fat and five grams of fiber.
Quinoa is easy to prepare, similar to rice. One cup of uncooked quinoa will yield about three cups cooked. Before cooking quinoa, it needs to be rinsed -- some guidelines suggest doing so several times. That gets rid of bitter-tasting (but luckily water-soluble) saponins on the seed coat. Read the directions on the package -- some brands of quinoa remove most of the coating during processing, but rinsing is still a good idea to get rid of any remaining residue.
When cooked, quinoa becomes opaque, and the germ in the circular seed partially detaches giving a coiled, corkscrew effect. It can be used in any way rice is; some people even enjoy it with nuts and dried fruit as a breakfast cereal.
Chow Line is a service of Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH, 43210-1044, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor: This column was reviewed by Julie Shertzer, registered dietitian and program specialist for Ohio State University Extension in the Department of Human Nutrition, in the College of Education and Human Ecology.