Quinoa: The Gluten-Free Super Food

From the WebMD Archives

By Shoshana Pritzker, R.D., C.D.N.

Every year a [not so] new quirky food product comes out of the woodwork to take over grocery stores and e-recipe pages. It’s interesting to see which ones make the grade, and which don’t quite live up to the hype. This year was no different: Quinoa emerged as the clear favorite in the kitchen and in good-for-you nutrients. What is it about quinoa that makes us forget about oldies (but goodies) like brown rice and sweet potatoes?

It seems like everybody is eating quinoa these days. People are serving it up as a hearty side dish, using it as an energy-boosting breakfast-grain alternative, or making it a main-dish attraction. Quinoa’s versatility and incredible nutrient profile is no doubt the reason it has become one of the hottest carb sources of 2013. If you still find yourself wondering what the heck quinoa is, you’re not alone: Most people think quinoa is a grain like rice or wheat, especially since it cooks up the same way rice would, with two cups of water for every cup of quinoa. Believe it or not, quinoa isn't a grain at all -- it’s actually a [super] seed or pseudo-grain.

So what’s the big hoopla about? Quinoa is one of the most nutrient-dense carbs available today. It’s got a whopping six grams of protein per cup and is the only carb source that contains all nine essential amino acids. Plus, this seed is a complete protein! On top of that, quinoa is high in lysine, the chief amino acid that’s responsible for healing sore muscles after an intense workout.

As if that’s not enough, quinoa has a handful of healing and healthy-living benefits. It's packed with minerals, including iron, phosphorous, manganese and copper. Both copper and manganese help fight free radicals and keep our bones strong, while iron and phosphorous are important for energy production and cancer prevention. Another positive health benefit of quinoa is that it’s loaded with fiber -- about 2.5 grams per serving. Among other things, fiber provides a feeling of fullness after a meal, helps maintain a healthy digestive tract and improves insulin control by slowing down the rate of sugar being released into your bloodstream.

Over the course of the year we saw an influx of quinoa recipes on social networks, blogs and websites. It’s like the entire Web world was all thinking the same thing: "Must. Try. Quinoa." Like anything with a strong Web following, online and in-store sales of quinoa soared! The high demand is pushing North American farmers to market locally grown quinoa. As of 2010, less than 10 percent of quinoa is grown locally. The rest is imported from South America. Due to the vast increase in demand for quinoa, prices have risen from about $1.50 per pound in 2006 to $8 per pound today. To say there’s tremendous potential for quinoa in the States is an understatement.

The range of quinoa products available now includes pasta, flour and breakfast cereals. The versatility of its use in baked goods, granola bars, side dishes, breakfast grains and other menu items makes it a favorite for food manufacturers as well as professional and at-home chefs.

What’s more, quinoa is gluten-free. The rise in popularity of gluten-free diets has no doubt contributed to the boost in quinoa consumption over the past year. Gluten is found in oats, rye, barley and wheat, making it difficult for those suffering from celiac disease and/or gluten intolerance to buy healthy grain products at the market. With quinoa’s impressive nutrient profile, ease of use and gluten-free status, it unquestionably became a hit within the gluten-free community.

Quinoa has quickly become a family favorite at the dinner table due to its mildly nutty flavor that works well with any ingredient. And it's ready in 12 to 15 minutes! The little white tail that swirls over the top of the seed is fun and interesting to kids (it's actually the germ sticking out). And it comes in a variety of colors, which boast the same blend of unique nutrients and flavors. Quinoa is the go-to seed of 2013: Imagine where it will go in the future!

Concerned about introducing quinoa into your household? Try swapping it for rice or pasta in any of your family’s favorite dishes and see what they think!

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