This is a guest post by trusty, study reading, truth-seeking nutrition student, and intern Coco Noel. She spent a few weeks researching all the in’s and out’s of quinoa. She really had no opinion before I gave her this assignent but it seems that she formed one. I hope you enjoy this post that will make you think twice about loading up on quinoa.
Quinoa: The Not So Superfood!
Many people consider quinoa to be their favorite high-protein, gluten-free grain.
The problem with that is…
1. It isn’t high protein.
2. Some varieties can cause a reaction in people with (gluten-sensitive) Celiac disease.
3. Quinoa isn’t even a grain—it’s a chenopod, which is related to beets and spinach.
In a world that’s gaga for quinoa—the United Nations declared 2013 the Year of the Quinoa–what else have we got wrong?
It’s Not Pronounced KWIN-oh-uh
The correct pronunciation is KEEN-wah.
Not All Quinoa is Safe for Gluten Free Folks
A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at 15 strains of quinoa and found that two of them – Ayacuchana and Pasankalla – could trigger a reaction in people with Celiac disease.
How to work around this: Most commercial quinoa isn’t labeled by strain. If you are adamant about avoiding gluten, your best bet would be to contact the brand of quinoa you buy and ask what strain of quinoa they use. Otherwise, your other option is to monitor your body for a reaction. If you have one, switch to another brand (and/or color, as quinoa also comes in red and black) and see how you feel.
It’s Not a Plentiful Source of Protein
A complete protein is one that has all nine essential amino acids. All animal protein (with the exception of gelatin) is a complete protein, and quinoa is indeed one of the few plant foods that falls into this category. The problem is that people often mistake it as being a good source of protein. True, quinoa has slightly more protein than wheat, rice and corn, but if you’re eating quinoa for the protein content, you’re in trouble: being comprised of 70% carbohydrate, 16% fat (mostly inflammatory omega 6), and 14% protein, quinoa is primarily a carbohydrate source. You’ll need to eat more than a dozen cups of quinoa just to get enough protein for one day!
A one cup serving of quinoa supplies you with 8 grams of protein and 222 calories. Compare that to four ounces of cottage cheese, with 13 grams of protein and fewer than half the calories. Three ounces of 80% lean ground beef provide 216 calories and 21 grams of protein. And a three ounce serving of salmon packs a whopping 22 grams of protein (plus an abundance of omega 3 fats) into 155 calories.
How to work around this: If you chose to eat quinoa, don’t count on it to be a primary source of protein. Add a slab of beef to your meal, or mix a little quinoa into a chicken salad or toss a few tablespoons to a smoothie.
Quinoa Contains Anti-Nutrients:
Though quinoa is a chenopod, it is plagued by some of the same anti-nutrients as both grains, legumes and some vegetables like broccoli and spinach. While these anti-nutrients aren’t necessarily reason enough to eschew these foods, they are something you should certainly take into consideration when selecting and preparing them.
Quinoa seeds are coated in chemical compounds called saponins, which have a bitter taste and serve as a natural pesticide. They’re also used in biopesticides to protect crops from bugs, as bugs won’t eat them. (They’re also poisonous to fish–so don’t go sprinkling quinoa into Nemo’s fishbowl.)
Saponins are used in some vaccines for their ability to penetrate our mucosa and help the vaccines get into other cells in our bodies. Ingesting saponins creates tiny holes in your small intestine, prevent your body from properly absorbing all the nutrients, and allow food particles to enter your bloodstream. This is the basis of Leaky Gut Syndrome, which is linked to myriad autoimmune disorders.
How to work around this: The good news is that most prepackaged quinoa has been polished or pre-rinsed to remove the saponins. However, post-processing saponin dust can remain. To remove any residual saponins, put the quinoa into a fine strainer and pour water over it. Not sure how long to rinse? Saponins foam when rinsed with water. If your quinoa is producing white foam, there are still saponins present–so continue rinsing until the water runs clear and foaming has stopped.
Phytates: Phytic acid is an anti-nutrient that binds to important minerals in foods and prevents their absorption. Consuming high levels of phytates can result in mineral deficiencies, as they block the absorption of zinc, iron, phosphorus and magnesium. Although one cup of quinoa contains 30% of the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of magnesium and 28% RDA of phosphorus, because the phytic acid binds with these minerals, your body actually absorbs far less.
How to work around this: Preparing quinoa with an acid soak, followed by cooking will remove 60-77% of the phytates.
How to soak quinoa (also works for grains):
1 cup quinoa
1 cup warm water
2 tablespoons lemon juice or apple cider vinegar
Combine all in a bowl, cover with a lid or cloth and let sit at room temperature for at least 12 hours.
Lectins: When I was a kid, my brother used to spit in his milkshakes, so I wouldn’t try to sneak a sip. Think of lectins the same way. They’re proteins that are found in quinoa and, like saponins, are basically built in pesticides. They’re purported to cause gastrointestinal distress in those who eat them, in hopes of keeping the predator from coming back for seconds.
Lectins bind with the lining of the small intestine and damage it by creating tiny holes that allow lectins and other food particles and toxins to get into the bloodstream. This means that lectins can bind with other parts of the body, including organs, which the immune system may misidentify as foreign invader and launch an attack. Immune disorders happen when the immune system begins attacking normal body tissue, and lectins have been linked to such disorders as IBS, Crohn’s, Thyroiditis, Multiple Sclerosis, and Colitis. As if that wasn’t enough, lectins are also associated with leptin resistance–which is linked to obesity. At least my brother’s spit didn’t do any of that.
How to work around this: Though they can’t be completely eliminated, soaking, sprouting (instructional video:), fermenting and cooking quinoa will help reduce the lectin content.
It’s Not Exactly Sustainable
Quinoa is native to the Andes region in South America, which is where most of the quinoa you find in the store today comes from. In Bolivia, quinoa fields once covered 10% of the land, and llamas grazed on the rest. Time Magazine reports, “Now, llamas are being sold to make room for crops, provoking a soil crisis since the [llama’s poop] is the undisputed best fertilizer for maintaining and restoring quinoa fields…Increased production also means erosion and strains on limited water sources.”
Demand in first world countries for this grain has caused prices to increase six fold in less than a decade—so much that poor quinoa farmers in Peru and Bolivia can no longer afford to eat the crop they grow. Imported junk foods like soda and refined flour products are cheaper.
For those who prioritize the environment and social well-being, is it possible to continue eating quinoa as we have been? Probably not.
How to work around this: Quinoa is now grown in Canada, the US, Denmark, the Netherlands, Italy, India, Kenya and China. If you want eat your quinoa with a clear conscience, your best option is to buy locally grown quinoa or take a stab at growing it yourself.
Perhaps the easiest way to work around ALL of the above:
Higher quality (and higher density) protein can be found in animal products. Fiber and phytochemicals can be found in fruits and vegetables, and the texture can be mimicked by making ultra-healthy cauliflower couscous (recipe here:).
Is quinoa a healthier alternative to wheat, corn, and rice? Probably, and if you’re determined to eat a grain-like food, go for it. But remember that although quinoa is “not as bad,” it’s still not necessarily good.
Thanks for reading!