Described as the "superfood of the future", quinoa is one of the most protein-rich foods available.

Health gurus sing quinoa’s praises, and this ancient, yet newly “discovered” grain is gaining popularity worldwide – so much so that crop prices have trebled in recent years.

Should you be tapping into the health benefits?

We take a look at the available science on quinoa, and what it can do for you.

What is quinoa?
In the ancient civilisations of South America, quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa willd.) was a valued staple food that was so highly regarded that it was deemed sacred. With the arrival of the western Conquistadores in the Andean region in the 1500s, quinoa was, however, banned because of the bitter taste of the seeds.

Only now, many centuries later, we’re “rediscovering” the nutritional value of this ancient grain, and cultivating it again worldwide (yes, also in Australia).

Although often referred to as a grain, quinoa is, in fact, a pseudograin: it’s not a grass like our other grains (e.g. wheat, oats, rice, sorghum), and both its seeds and leaves can also be eaten. The dried seeds (and not the leaves) are generally sold in supermarkets and health shops across Australia.

What research shows
Recent scientific studies have confirmed that quinoa has remarkable nutritional properties – both in terms of protein content (15%) and amino-acid balance.

Quinoa has been found to contain more lysine than other cereals. This is an amino acid that is usually lacking in plant foods. Quinoa also contains vitamins, minerals and compounds such as polyphenols, phytosterols and flavonoids – all of which have antioxidant and protective functions.

Published nutritional values vary, but the average nutritional composition of a cup of cooked quinoa, based on nutrition data supplied by the USDA SR-21 on the Nutrition Data website (2010), is as follows:

Serving size 1 cup cooked (185g) RDA or SDI* % RDA
Energy 932kJ (222kcal)
Protein 8g 56g 14,3%
Total fat 4g
Total carbohydrates 39g
Dietary fibre 5g 20g* 25%
Thiamin (vitamin B1) 0.2mg 1.2mg 16,7%
Riboflavin (vitamin B2) 0.2mg 1.3mg 15.4%
Pyridoxine (vitamin B6) 0.2mg 1.3mg 15.4%
Folate 77.7 microgram 400mcg 19.4%
Iron 2.8mg 18mg 15.6%
Magnesium 118mg 420mg 28.1%
Phosphorus 281mg 700mg 40.1%
Potassium 318mg 2000mg* 15.9%
Sodium 13mg 3000mg* 0.4%
Zinc 2mg 11mg 18.2%
Copper 0.4mg 2.3mg* 17.4%
Manganese 1.2mg 3.5mg* 34.3%

RDA = Recommended Daily Dietary Allowance for individuals older than 13 years
SDI* = Suggested Daily Intakes

High energy content
One cup of cooked quinoa is a rich source of energy that supplies about 12% of the daily energy requirements of an adult woman who isn't trying to lose weight. It supplies nearly 15% of the daily energy intake for a woman who is on an energy-reduced diet.

So, while quinoa is an excellent source of readily available fuel, which will make an important contribution to the energy needs of anyone who has a high energy demand (e.g. athletes, children and teenagers), slimmers should only eat moderate portions to prevent weight gain.

Trying to lose weight? Have half a cup of cooked quinoa for breakfast to sustain you for the entire morning.

A high protein content (8g per cup), and the fact that quinoa protein contains the nine essential amino acids, means that quinoa has an advantage over other grains and cereals. It's particularly useful in the diet of vegetarians and vegans as a source of protein.

Carbohydrates and dietary fibre
Quinoa is also a rich source of carbohydrates and, with a low glycaemic index (GI) of 18, it should provide sustained energy for longer than most other grains. If you suffer from insulin resistance or diabetes, it may be a good idea to have half a cup of cooked quinoa as an alternative to high-GI starches (e.g. potatoes or white bread).

The relatively high dietary fibre content will contribute to sustained energy levels and also prevent constipation.

Finally, the carbohydrate in quinoa is gluten-free, which makes it an excellent choice for people with gluten allergies or coeliac disease.

The total fat content of quinoa is low (4g per serving of 185g) and, like all cereals and grains, it doesn’t contain any cholesterol.

Vitamins and minerals
Quinoa is also a rich source of the B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B6 and folate), magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper and manganese.

The low sodium content of quinoa is regarded as a nutritional advantage, but keep in mind that if you add table salt to quinoa during cooking or food preparation, the sodium content will increase accordingly.

Possible risk
Most people can safely eat quinoa, but the grain does contain compounds called oxalates that can be a problem for anyone who struggles with oxalate kidney stones. If you’re on an oxalate-reduced diet, it’s best to steer clear of quinoa.

In addition, some people may be allergic to quinoa. In fact, the first case report of an anaphylactic reaction to quinoa has already been reported in France.

The saponins in quinoa – bitter, foamy compounds that need to be carefully rinsed off the seeds before cooking – are classified as toxic glycosides. If you’re allergic to alfalfa, hops or soybeans, which also contain saponins, then it’s possible that you may have a similar reaction to quinoa.

How to prepare quinoa
Always rinse quinoa with water to remove the layer of soapy saponins that cover the seeds, advises This reduces the bitter taste and removes these potentially allergenic compounds.

Place the seeds in a fine-meshed sieve or colander and rub the seeds while rinsing under flowing water. Taste the washed seeds to see if they need additional rinsing.

Add one cup of quinoa seeds to two cups of water, and bring to the boil. Reduce heat, place a lid on the saucepan, and simmer for 15 minutes until the seeds become translucent.

Replace potatoes, rice and pasta in hot and cold meals with quinoa – it’s good for you!