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Versatile quinoa packs a powerful punch of protein, fiber, vitamins

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Versatile quinoa packs a powerful punch of protein, fiber, vitamins

Green is Good by Kate’s Southwest Quinoa Salad

My relationship with quinoa got off to a rocky start. For openers, I didn’t know how to pronounce the “Mother Grain” of South American culture. Next, I prepared it the same way I prepare rice, and expected it to be similar in texture and taste. It wasn't, and I gave my four-pound bag to someone who appreciated it much more than me.

After only one date, I had called it quits. I knew it was good for me, yet there was no way I was going to eat my way through that huge bag.

Many times, we miss out on a food that has versatility as well as numerous health benefits because we don’t know how to prepare it to our liking. Some foods are very bland and need to take on the flavor of any seasonings you add before they land on your plate. To my palate, quinoa needs some help.

Quinoa is pronounced “KEEN-wah,” and dates to the Incan Empire. Though it is a seed, quinoa is treated as a grain.

It recently received the status of “superfood” because of its high nutritional value. It even got it's own "international year" from the United Nations — 2013 —  because of its numerous health qualities and potential to fight world hunger.

Quinoa is gluten-free and packed with vitamins and minerals. It contains more protein, fiber and healthy fats than other grains.

There are thousands of quinoa varieties, however, the most widely grown are white, the one you'll most likely find in your grocery store; red; and black.  They vary somewhat in nutritional value and the darker the color, the higher the antioxidant content. The white variety cooks in about 15 minutes; the red and black take a bit longer. All have a nutty flavor and a chewy, fluffy texture.

A big selling point of quinoa is its protein content. One cup of cooked quinoa contains 8 grams of protein. In comparison, a large egg has 6 grams of protein. Proteins are made up of amino acids, nine of which are essential amino acids that must come from our diets. Our bodies can produce the 11 nonessential amino acids that we need. All amino acids are needed to thrive.

Quinoa also is a complete protein, meaning that it contains all nine of the essential amino acids in significant amounts and making it an exception among plant proteins. (Animal proteins, including eggs, are complete.) This makes quinoa valuable for those who eat a primarily plant-based diet. 

One cup of cooked quinoa contains 5 grams of dietary fiber, more than white or brown rice or couscous. Fiber helps prevent constipation, may help lower cholesterol and improve blood sugar control. It also helps you feel fuller longer, which may help you lose weight.

Quinoa's carbohydrate content is comparable to that of barley and rice, with about 40 grams of carbohydrates per cooked cup. But it is considered a low-glycemic food — it doesn’t cause a spike in blood sugar — due to its protein and fiber content, which slow the digestion process.

Quinoa is good source of manganese, copper, phosphorus, folate, iron, magnesium and zinc, as well as many plant compounds and antioxidants. A study by Harvard School of Public Health stated that eating a bowl of quinoa daily may reduce the chances of early death risk from cancer, heart disease, respiratory ailments, diabetes and other chronic diseases by 17%.

A word of caution for individuals who are prone to kidney stones. Quinoa is high in oxalates and may contribute to kidney stone formation. Rinsing and soaking before cooking can reduce this effect.

There are a variety of ways to enjoy quinoa. I have discovered that it makes a delicious salad with your favorite chopped vegetables and a simple citrus and olive oil dressing. This dish is a big hit at summer picnics since there’s no mayonnaise to spoil in the heat. Add a protein such as chicken for the perfect lunch. It’s good warm for breakfast topped with sausage and eggs. Add to soups to thicken and increase protein content. Use it as a substitute for other grains in stuffed peppers, your favorite stir-fry or mix with fruit. I even came across a recipe for quinoa pancakes. Though I am happy that I gave this pseudo-grain another chance, I’m not quite ready for quinoa pancakes.

Carol Slager is a licensed pharmacist, author, blogger and health coach in Northwest Indiana. Follow her monthly in Get Healthy and at inkwellcoaching.com. Opinions expressed are the writer's.

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