As for amaranth and buckwheat, quinoa (pronounced ‘keen-wah’) fits within the ‘pseudo-cereal’ group as it is not part of the Poaceae botanical family, in which ‘true’ grains belong. It’s loosely grouped as a ‘pseudo-cereal’ with other grains as it’s nutritionally similar and used in similar ways to ‘true’ grains.
Quinoa originates from the Andes, where it has long been cultivated by the Inca people. It is a small, typically light-coloured round grain (although it also available in other colours including red, purple and black), similar in appearance to sesame seeds.
To help ward off insects and birds, quinoa has a bitter residue of saponins, a natural occurring plant-defence. Most quinoa sold today has already been washed, but it is still advisable for consumers to thoroughly rinse the quinoa seeds under running water prior to cooking, so as to maximise the enjoyment of this pseudo-cereal.
Like other pseudo-cereals, quinoa contains significant amounts of all the essential amino acids. Quinoa is traditionally produced in South America in higher altitudes and cooler environments than Australia. The Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) is currently undertaking trials of quinoa in Western Australia. The project aims to select suitable varieties and growing regions to produce quinoa in Australia.
Nutrition credentials of quinoa:
- Rich in carbohydrates, with a low glycemic index of 53.
- High protein content (15%), providing all essential amino acids, including lysine.
- Has an usually high ratio of protein to carbohydrate, since the germ makes up about 60% of the grain.
- Relatively low in fat, most of which is omega-6 polyunsaturated fat.
- In terms of minerals, provides notable quantities manganese, magnesium, iron, copper, phosphorus and potassium.
- In terms of vitamins, contains notable amounts of Vitamin E and B-group vitamins.
- High in dietary fibre.
- Contains polyphenols, phytosterols and flavonoids.
- Gluten free.
A table comparing the nutrient content of different types of grains can be downloaded from our Grains & Nutrition page.
Main culinary uses of quinoa:
- Quinoa grain – the grain cooks in around 15 minutes and when cooked, it reveals a small white tail (the germ of the kernel). It creates a light, fluffy side dish and it can also be added to soups, salads and baked goods. While most quinoa sold today has had the bitter saponin coating removed, an extra rinse is recommended to remove any bitter residue.
- Quinoa flour – with a tasty, nutty flavour, it may be used in gluten free baking. It is often combined with tapioca, potato starch and sorghum to create a gluten-free baking mix. Quinoa flour may also be mixed with wheat flour (replacing up to 20% of the wheat flour) to produce a low gluten flour which will rise. This flour may also be used as a thickener in sauces, soups and other dishes, especially in cases where additional protein may be beneficial.
- Quinoa flakes – are simply steam-rolled to create a quick cooking flake. Quinoa flakes can be used for a nutritious hot breakfast cereal, pancakes, waffles or smoothies. The flakes can be used to coat fish or chicken, or they may be used as an alternative to rolled oats in muffins or cookies.
- Quinoa food products – quinoa is now appearing in a range of breads, breakfast cereal cereals, crackers, pasta and other grain-based foods.