The Mother Grain

Give your body the benefits of quinoa.
By Amy Vergin

For over 5,000 years, people near the Andes mountains have farmed Chenopodium quinoa, or as the Incas referred to it, “chisaya mama” (mother grain). Quinoa, pronounced keen-wah, was the main source of food for the Incas up until the 1500s, when a Spaniard named Francisco Pizarro destroyed all quinoa fields.

Pizarro reasoned that he could control the Incas if he destroyed this grain and made growing it illegal. Incans could be sentenced to death if found growing this nutritious crop. Much less nutritious wheat replaced the once flowing quinoa fields. Luckily, patches remained, keeping the plant from going extinct.

These days, quinoa isn’t as controversial a crop as it was many years ago. Instead, it has crept into a wide variety of food products throughout the years. This isn’t without good reason, considering it contains all nine essential amino acids and a high amount of protein. However, quinoa has far more to offer than just vitamins and protein.

Pseudo-Cereal Grain

Quinoa is an amino acid-rich seed that is fluffy and has a slightly crunchy texture, especially after being cooked. The magenta stalks it grows on are between three and nine feet tall. Seeds from the plant are a wide array of colors: from red and purple to black and yellow. Quinoa is considered a grain even though it is in the same family as spinach and Swiss chard. What makes quinoa a “pseudo-cereal grain” is that it contains nutrients similar to those found within other grains, and it cooks and is eaten like any other grain.

This “mother grain” is classified as a mild eye and respiratory irritant and a low gastrointestinal irritant, meaning few people are allergic or sensitive to it.

The beauty of quinoa is that it has the ability to grow in unusual habitats. Not only does it grow well in low-grade soils with little to no irrigation or fertilization, but it is also categorized as a drought-resistant plant. Quinoa can thrive with as little as four inches of rainfall annually. There are only a handful of other plants that can survive in such dry conditions, such as asparagus, alfalfa, and oregano. Quinoa harvest starts at the end of March, so it has to be resilient to survive a winter growing season.

With the ability to survive harsh environmental conditions, quinoa also amazes farmers by producing 1200 to 2000 pounds of new seed per acre from just half a pound of planted seed. This may be why the United Nations considers quinoa a “super crop”; quinoa is a cost-effective food that has the ability to feed hungry people all over the world.

Health At Its Finest

Aside from its nine amino acids, quinoa also has high percentages of manganese, tryptophan, magnesium, folate, and phosphorus. These all are key micronutrients for people who struggle with migraines, headaches, diabetes, and atherosclerosis. Quinoa also contains a high amount of the amino acid lysine, which promotes tissue growth and repair.

The grain’s high levels of magnesium work with your body’s use of glucose and insulin secretion, leading to a lowered risk of heart disease, certain cancers, and type 2 diabetes. Magnesium relaxes your blood vessels and prevents hypertension, ischemic heart disease, and fights against atherosclerosis. Have headaches? The magnesium within quinoa relaxes blood vessels to prevent dilation and helps decrease the number of migraines you experience.

Other research has shown additional benefits of quinoa. For one, it is a more nutritious solution for people looking to live a gluten-free lifestyle. The high potassium content controls your blood pressure and the fiber content keeps your body feeling full longer. As mentioned before, quinoa reduces the risk of diabetes due to the antioxidant quercitin, according to the 2009 Journal of Medicinal Foods.

Where Can Quinoa Be Used?

Did you know that quinoa can be used in granola, cereal, bread, crackers, pasta, shampoo, flour, soup, and even alcohol? That’s the way a superfood should be! The flake and flour form of this super seed are becoming more available in health-food stores and should be easier to find as its popularity continues to grow.

Storing, Preparing, and Serving

The best way to store quinoa is to use containers or bins to hold the seeds in bulk. This allows you to keep the seeds fresh and away from moisture and air. The seeds can be kept for up to six months if refrigerated.

Sometimes it’s tricky to wash and clean quinoa for the cooking process. There is a residue call saponin—a bitter, soapy, and toxic resin that covers the seeds to protect them from birds while they grow. To remove the saponin, run the seeds under cold water and rub them together. Don’t worry, though: saponin isn’t poisonous to humans. If your quinoa still tastes bitter, it will require a bit more cleaning.

Quinoa is cooked like rice. Always add one part quinoa to two parts water in saucepan. When the water boils, reduce heat and simmer. One cup of quinoa usually takes about 15 minutes to cook. To know when it’s finished cooking, a little white tail—the germ of the kernel—will stick out from the seed. What’s even more amazing is that quinoa will expand to several times its original size after being cooked. In this instance, a little goes a long way.

Find small, simple ways to incorporate quinoa into your everyday lifestyle—and these tiny adjustments to your diet could prevent many future health problems. Let your body know you care!