Friday, August 23, 2013

QUINOA (Pronounced "keen-wah" for goodness sake, not "kin-o-a"!)

Not quite a real grain...
Cereal grains are the seeds of grasses. Quinoa is the seed of a broad-leaf plant. For this reason quinoa is actually a pseudo-cereal. i.e. Not technically a grain but with similar characteristics to one.

Quinoa has many touted benefits. The main ones being a relatively high (and complete) protein content, high levels of fibre, magnesium, iron and manganese and a relatively low glycemic load. 

And while quinoa has been eaten for millennia, it seems to be an uber popular food at the moment - particularly among the vegan/vegetarian/yoga/health/hip crowd. 

It is verging on 'super food' status and I see it popping up on a lot of New York restaurant menus to fancy up an otherwise basic market side or salad. (e.g. Kale, apple and quinoa salad).

However, I really don't think quinoa is all it's cracked up to be. And I certainly wouldn't consider it a superfood. Here's why:

Firstly, let's look at the proposed health benefits... 

High protein 
5g/100g of cooked quinoa is hardly good protein bang for your buck in my opinion, when this is wrapped up with 22g of carbohydrates. And while it does contain all the essential amino acids - giving it "complete" protein status - it is still a plant protein, which are generally inferior to animal proteins. (Vegans - feel free to get angry/defensive at this point). 

The reason being that (contrary to vegan propaganda) animal proteins are readily digested and assimilated by the human body whereas plant proteins are less well digested and absorbed, unless they are very well prepared and/or fermented (Lalonde, 2012). 

High fibre
Quinoa has 2.8g/100g 
Sweet potato has 3.3g/100g 
Avocado has 6.7g/100g
That is, there are better options than quinoa for dietary fibre.

High iron/magnesium/manganese
The levels of these micronutrients in quinoa are very respectable in absolute terms but when it comes to nutrient bio-availability (after digestion and absorption) things are not as simple as the pure numbers. 

As a pseudo grains with relatively high levels of anti-nutrients, including phytates and lectin, it is possible that much of these minerals will be bound up and not readily absorbed by the body. The jury is still out on this but I think there are far better food choices if you are simply after iron and magnesium that contain little or no anti-nutrients and are known to be high in bio-availability. 

E.g. grass-fed beef for iron and >70% dark chocolate for magnesium

Low glycemic load (per 100g cooked)
Quinoa - 10
Sweet Potato - 7
Parsnips - 4
Cauliflower - 3
Carrots - 2
Meat - 0
That is, there are better options than quinoa if you want a healthy low glycemic load food.

Secondly, let's look at the potential downside...

Quinoa contains significant levels of the anti-nutrients saponin. Saponins (soap-like molecules) are mainly contained in the outer layer of the seed and have a bitter taste to ward off predators 
such as birds and hippies.

Saponins have been linked to gut irritation. One particular study showed that "some saponins readily increase the permeability of the small intestinal mucosal cells, thereby inhibiting active nutrient transport" (Johnson, 1986).

If you ate quinoa raw off the plant, or consumed too many of the leaves you would get very sick indeed. The same goes for most grains and legumes. They need to be washed, prepared and cooked to be edible. 

Ancient civilizations who relied on these foods prepared them exceptionally well, often using fermentation, which would have minimized any potential harmful effects of the anti-nutrients. 

Because the saponins are largely in the exterior of the seed they are mostly removed by the washing process. However, it is possible that enough remain in tact to potentially cause irritation or even permeability of the gut lining when eaten by some people, especially when consumed often and in quantity. 

For this reason I would suggest that anyone with potential gut irritation issues, or at risk for leaky gut syndrome or autoimmune issues should stay clear of quinoa. 

Carbohydrate content
At 22g/100g quinoa is relatively high in carbohydrates. If you are trying to lose weight or correct metabolic issues such as diabetes, insulin resistance or obesity I would also suggest staying away from quinoa as a mainstay. 

There are many other nutrient dense foods with far less carbohydrates - such as cruciform vegetables (broccoli and cauliflower), roots (carrots, parsnips, beets), bulbs (onions) or green leafy plants (kale, spinach). 

And even if you did want to get some more carbohydrates in I certainly think sweet potato, yams, parsnips, bulbs, etc are a far better option... Not to mention that they taste better! 

I mean quinoa by itself sucks. No? Let's be honest. Mmmm boiled quinoa… Yum! 

Quinoa is not overtly harmful compared to other grains (I'm looking at you, wheat!). 

Quinoa does not negatively affect me in any noticeable way and I do consume it on very rare occasions.  

However, quinoa is definitely not the superfood it is claimed to be and there are far better options out there for every proposed benefit of quinoa. Given the choice I would take sweet potato every time over quinoa. 

Furthermore, there are some potential issues that could arise from the over consumption of quinoa for certain groups of people. 

Ipso facto, The Paleo Model does not eat quinoa. 


Johnson, IT (1986), Influence of Saponins on Gut Permeability and Active Nutrient Transport In Vitro, [Accessed 5 June 2013]

Lalonde, M, PhD (2012). 'What Science Really Says About the Paleo Diet - With Mat Lalonde', Revolution Health Radio Podcast Transcript, 13 June 2012, [Accessed 26 May 2013]

Wilcox, July (2012), '7 Benefits of Quinoa: The Supergrain of the Future', MindBodyGreen, [Accessed 5 June 2013]

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