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Quinoa — What are its Advantages and Disadvantages?

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Quinoa — What are its Advantages and Disadvantages?

Matt June 8, 2018
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MD: Did you know that NASA is studying this natural fruit as a potential food for its astronauts? Although it’s very nutritious, it’s not entirely perfect.

Quinoa is currently grown in 95 countries and scientists have recently deciphered its genome. There’s also a project that’s been running since 1993 in Europe titled: “Quinoa: a multi-purpose culture for the European community“.

A gift from the Gods?

Quinoa (also known as chenopodium quinoa) belongs to the amaranth subfamily of amaranthaceae. It’s closely related to beetroots and spinach. This plant grows once a year to a height or around 1-3 meters. Its large leaves are crowned with beautiful inflorescences panicles. It originally came from South America, specifically the Andes valley.

Quinoa was one of the main crops of the Incas for many centuries, first cultivated about 7000 years ago. The Incas named it “the mother of all grains” — a gift from the gods — and it was considered sacred. When they first began to cultivate this grain, the Incan emperor himself planted the very earliest seeds. However, the fruits that grow from quinoa aren’t grains, rather they’re round and flat nuts, around 1.5 to 4 millimeters in diameter. They often vary in color, from white to black to beige or even cherry red.

Quinoa has also been referred to as a “pseudo-grain”. The native Americans roasted its seeds and added them to soups, boiled porridge and even created a traditional drink known as “chichi”, which has a similar taste to beer.

Unfortunately, the Spaniards regarded quinoa as a plebeian food, fit for Indians only. Moreover, the Catholic Church actually prohibited the farming of quinoa, because it was used by the natives to prepare a sacred drink used in their religious ceremonies. As a result, quinoa only survived in areas untouched by the Europeans, who would have attempted to replace it with other crops. It was only in the 1960s that quinoa was first recognized by the Western world for its valuable properties.

Is it a super food?

Quinoa is a surprisingly unpretentious fruit / grain. It can grow to a height of around 4,000 meters, higher than any other type, within saline, acidic or alkaline soils. It can also withstand temperatures anywhere from -5 to 35 degrees and is generally unaffected by drought. This makes it very profitable. Just 200 grams of sawn quinoa seeds will produce a harvest of around 600 kilos to a ton! Most important of all: it’s incredibly nutritious.

Quinoa plant seeds can hold up to 19 percent of protein and contain nine extremely important amino acids.

Most grains are lacking in lysine and isoleucine, but quinoa contains a substantial amount. The proteins contained in its seeds are of great biological significance, making up a large number of amino acids required by the human body. In quinoa, this particular nutritional indicator is at around 73 percent, almost as much as in beef (74 percent). The value in other cereal grains is far lower: white rice 56 percent, wheat 49 percent and maize 36 percent. It’s no wonder this fruit-grain is so highly regarded by vegetarians, vegans and others looking to increase their protein intake without adding excess cholesterol.

The amount of fatty acids contained in these seeds is relatively small — around 14.5 percent, 70-80 percent of which are unsaturated fats, including up to 50 percent linoleic acid, 25 percent oleic and 5 percent alpha-linolenic acid. We know that eating unsaturated rather than fatty acid can help reduce the risk of developing type-II diabetes, and fight obesity and cardiovascular and inflammatory diseases.

However, not only is a larger amount of unsaturated fatty acid crucial for achieving these benefits, but also a sufficient ratio of omega-3 and omega-6. In omega-3, one of the double bonds in its hydrocarbon chain lies between the third and fourth carbon atoms. In omega-6 molecules, it’s between the sixth and seventh atoms. The optimal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 varies from 5:1 to 10:1 — in quinoa it’s around 6:1.

Carbohydrates are also incredibly beneficial, as long as they have a low glycemic index. We measure this on a scale of 0 to 100. The smaller the level, the lower your blood glucose level will be around two hours after eating. Products with a low glycemic index (i.e. less than 55) normalize blood sugar and lipid levels and thus help to keep your weight under control. In quinoa this index varies from 35 to 53. Its seeds contain around 58 to 64 percent starch, which is gradually absorbed into the intestine, but it contains very little sugar — mainly D-xyloses and maltose. There’s virtually no glucose and fructose in quinoa seeds.

Another advantage of quinoa is its content of around 10 to 16 percent of dietary fiber, which is almost twice that of other cereals. This stimulates intestinal peristalsis and reduces blood pressure, lowers your risk of diabetes and can help prevent hemorrhoids and cardiovascular problems. Dietary fiber also reduces the levels of cholesterol and glucose in the blood and can therefore aid with weight loss.

Quinoa is also superior among grains thanks to its riboflavin and folic acid content. Riboflavin helps to improve energy metabolism by the brain and muscular cells, while folic acid is important to maintain normal brain function as well as your mental and emotional health. Quinoa also contains the valuable nutrients thiamin, pantothenic acid, antioxidants and vitamins C and E.

Scientists have identified 23 polyphonic compounds with antioxidant properties in quinoa seeds, primarily ferulic acid and quercetin. The darker the seed color, the more polyphenols it contains.

Another important nutritional substance is betaine, which serves as a foundation of the methyl groups used to synthesize certain amino acids and maintain osmotic pressure in the body’s cells.

Furthermore, quinoa supersedes corn, rice and wheat in terms of its calcium, iron, magnesium and potassium content. As for zinc, it’s level is on par with wheat. In fact, it only loses out slightly on its phosphorus content.

What’s it lacking?

This unique product with its essential nutrients, vitamins and trace elemtns, doesn’t contain any gluten. Remember, gluten is a protein found in cereals that can cause a very serious immune reaction in a large number of people. Severe gluten intolerance is known as celiac disease and one in every 100 people suffer from it.

Although there are special gluten-free diets available, these often contain more salt, more saturated fat, but fewer vitamins, macro- and microelements than gluten diets. Quinoa, however, doesn’t have these pitfalls and can serve as the basis of a gluten-free diet, thanks to its large supply of vitamins and minerals.

Note that quinoa protein can, like any other protein, cause an allergic reaction in some people, but so far only one such case has been documented — a 52-year-old Frenchman in fact.

A spoonful of saponins in a barrel of porridge

Quinoa isn’t totally perfect, it does have some minor flaws. The most significant one is probably its high content of saponins. These are called triterpene glycosides and they exist to protect the plant from herbivore animals. Researchers have so far found 43 different types in their seeds with a concentration of about 5 percent. This chemical is harmful for humans because they have a hemolytic action and bitter taste.

The sequencing genomeThe saponins in quinoa can be removed by soaking its seeds, but you need a lot of water to do this — and it also washes away many of the valuable nutrients. Fortunately, there’s another method. As the saponins are concentrated mainly in the seed shells, they can be removed with special machinery. Meanwhile, the seed retains all of its natural nutrients. At present, quinoa cultivators are developing various new sweet varieties, which contain less than 0.11 percent of saponins. The sequencing of the quinoa genome has allowed scientists to determine the specific genes responsible for saponins synthesis, which scientists may be able to target.

The other harmful element in quinoa is phytic acid, which binds to various minerals and interferes with their absorption into the intestines. This can also be removed by soaking the quinoa in water.

Last of all, quinoa also contains some oxalates, which can reduce the body’s absorption of calcium and magnesium and even lead to kidney stone formation. Their content can be reduced by lightly cooking the seeds.

Quinoa products

Usually, quinoa seeds are sold raw or partly soaked, without their seed shell or coating. Quinoa is often used to make porridge, which can be combined with raw or cooked vegetables.

The typical time to cook quinoa is between 12 and 20 minutes, but this depends on their protein content. The higher the protein content, the longer you should boil the quinoa. The amount of water added for boiling should be around 2.5 to 4 times more than the amount of seeds you’re cooking.

Once the seeds are boiled, they’ll increase in volume like rice, but they still appear small like millet seeds. You can store boiled quinoa in the fridge for up to seven days.

Quinoa is also used to create a gluten-free flour than can be used to bake cupcakes and biscuits. It’s also very good for making quinoa noodles.

A lot of products now contain around 20 percent quinoa, including pasta, bread, biscuits, certain drinks, baby food and dietary supplements. The plant’s leaves and shoots are also sometimes added to food and eaten like other green vegetables.

Scientists at the Harvard School of Health claim that daily consumption of boiled quinoa can help reduce your risk of premature death from cancer, diabetes, heart disease, as well as improving your respiratory system by up to 17 percent.

Scientists at NASA are also interested in this particular food for astronauts who have to spend prolonged periods of time in space. They believe that widespread distribution of quinoa around the planet will help to increase the overall food security of mankind.

Children often ask the question: why is healthy food always tasteless? Unfortunately, quinoa is no exception to this. Its boiled seeds are practically devoid of any flavor, except a very slight bitterness.