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Quinoa: The tiny grain that packs a nutritional punch

This nutty-flavored South American food is low in fat, high in protein, fiber and more

By Jackie Shank

Appeared in on December 23, 2010

Quinoa Quinoa is a grain-like crop grown mainly for its edible seeds, and its flavor is similar to cream of wheat, but with a hint of nuttiness. Jackie Shank, undergraduate nutrition program director in the Department of Nutrition & Dietetics at the University of North Florida, discusses myths and facts about this tiny grain that packs a big nutritional punch.

Myth: Quinoa is weird.

Fact: Quinoa, pronounced KEEN-wah, is really cool, albeit unfamiliar to most Americans. According to food scientist Harold McGee, chenopodium quinoa is a native of northern South America and was a staple food of the Incas. It was domesticated around 5000 B.C. Today, most of the world's quinoa is grown in Peru and Bolivia. It's in the same family as beets and spinach, and although the fresh greens of the plant are edible, it's the tiny round seeds that are typically eaten.

Myth: Quinoa isn't widely available.Quinoa

Fact: You'll find quinoa at any natural food market and at some traditional grocery stores. Save money by purchasing from a store that offers grains in self-service bulk bins. You can also purchase quinoa online from companies such as Bob's Red Mill at

Myth: Quinoa isn't as nutritious as other grains.

Fact: Quinoa's a nutritional powerhouse. It's high in protein compared to most other grains, and like soy, the protein is complete, containing all nine of the essential amino acids required by humans.

A typical serving of 3/4 cup cooked quinoa packs four grams of healthful fiber and more than two milligrams of iron.

It contains respectable amounts of magnesium, folate and vitamin B-6.

Quinoa also receives accolades for what it doesn't contain: pesky cholesterol and saturated or trans fat.

The USDA MyPyramid Food Guide counts 1/2 cup of cooked quinoa as a serving of whole grain.

Myth: Quinoa is too bitter to be tasty.

Quinoa is a versatile and delicious whole grain with a mild, slightly nutty flavor. Fact: It's true that many varieties have a natural coating of bitter defensive compounds called saponins; however, saponins are easily removed by rinsing the quinoa under cool running water in a fine strainer. For convenience, most boxed quinoa has been pre-rinsed.

Myth: Quinoa has limited uses and is complicated to prepare.

Fact: Quinoa is a versatile and delicious whole grain with a mild, slightly nutty flavor. It can be cooked in water like rice, by simmering for 15 to 20 minutes until the extra water is absorbed and the curly germ separates from the seed. Quinoa can be added to soups and stews, and ground into flour for use in bread products.

It doesn't contain the sometimes troublesome gluten proteins, so it's an allowed grain for people who need to avoid gluten.

The Goods is a monthly column about food myths and facts by faculty members in UNF's Department of Nutrition and Dietetics. Have a question about quinoa? Contact Jackie Shank at



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