In this article, I will help you understand what quinoa is and the good and bad properties of it so you can decide if you want to eat it as part of your diet. Always remember that you are free to choose what you eat and I tend to use the Paleo diet as a starting point and then add to or take away foods that give me problems or that I tolerate well.
What is quinoa?
Quinoa is considered a pseudo-grain, which is a seed or plant cooked and eaten as a grain with a nutrient list equivalent to whole grains. Furthermore, it is an agricultural type food that wasn’t available in the paleolithic era, categorizing it as a non-paleo food.
Quinoa is pronounced keen-wah rather than kwin-oh-a. Also known as Chenopodium quinoa or goosefoot, it is related to swiss chard, spinach, and beets and its leaves and seeds can be eaten. It is grown and harvested high in the Andes with harvest starting in March. To the Incas, it is considered sacred and is called chisaya mama (the mother of all grains).
As a popular food, it was cultivated in abundance for about five thousand years, until 1532, when Francisco Pizarro, a Spanish explorer, demolished the fields to diminish the Incan empire. Even still, small areas of it survived the destruction and were forgotten, until they were rediscovered in the 1970’s.
There are over 120 different known types of quinoa that are almost any color, such as black, red, purple, yellow, and green. The most commonly available in the market are the colors red, black and white (yellow or ivory). My favorite is red.
The plants can grow from 3 to 9 feet tall and are drought resistant, providing 1200 to 2000 pounds of seed per acre, making it a “super crop” according to the United Nations. It has become increasingly available in America, found mostly in health food stores, and it is also available as flakes, puffs or as a flour.
The Good and The Bad
Saponins are a soap-like substance made by the plant’s defense system. When eaten, the saponins in quinoa cause inflammation in the intestines, resulting in a leaky gut. You can rinse it before cooking it, however, not all saponins can be removed.
As well as saponins, phytic acid can be detrimental to the digestive system. Phytic acid blocks calcium (a risk factor for osteoporosis), zinc, iron, copper, and magnesium from being absorbed and utilized by the body. It is found in all grains and on the outside of a few seeds and nuts. To the same extent as saponins, phytic acid cannot be completely reduced by simply cooking and washing it.
If you feel like you aren’t ready to give up grains just yet, then it is a healthy alternative. Excluding the saponins and phytic acid, it is considered to be one of the best alternatives to grains. It is gluten-free, which is good news for people with celiac disease, and produces minimal inflammation in the intestines when eaten. It can take the place of grains in breads, cereals, pastas, granola, crackers and can even be made into a drink.
Quinoa provides all the essential amino acids, making it one of the only plant foods that is a complete protein. It contains a high amount of iron, magnesium and carbohydrates. It also contains a high amount of potassium, which helps to control blood pressure. When eaten, it keeps you fuller longer, which is good in weight-loss diets.
It provides small amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, which increases the function of the brain and reduces the risk of heart attacks, while also giving energy to the body. Like many plants that reduce the risk for diabetes, it contains much of the same amount of fiber, protein and antioxidants, making it an advocate in lowering diabetes.
So, is quinoa Paleo?
There is a lot of uncertainty and conflict about whether quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) is considered Paleo or not. According to Loren Cordain, PHd., quinoa is not Paleo. It is a healthy alternative to grains, is gluten-free and a complete protein but cannot be considered Paleo because of the saponins and phytic acid it contains.