There are many animal-based complete proteins including meats, poultry, fish, milk, eggs, and cheese, but what about plant-based complete proteins?1 That’s the question that leaves many skeptical of vegetarian & vegan diets doubting whether a plant-based diet can really provide all of the protein needed to properly sustain the body.
Complete proteins or “high-quality proteins” are those that provide all of the essential amino acids needed by the body (see: Complete vs. Incomplete Protein). That’s where quinoa comes in…quinoa is an impressive plant-based complete protein.
Complete plant proteins include: soybeans, amaranth, buckwheat, spirulina, and hemp & chia seeds. There may be much fewer plant-derived complete proteins, but their striking nutrient profiles definitely give them a powerful presence, putting any doubt about their value to the diet at rest.
Quinoa, pronounced “keen-wah” is broadly referred to as a grain, although technically, it isn’t one. Quinoa is what one would call a “pseudo-cereal,” because it is eaten and cooked like a grain and has similar nutritive properties, though it is not a true member of the true grass family.2 The quinoa plant is actually in the same family as beets, Swiss chard, and spinach. Quinoa may be having an identity crisis, but its remarkable nutrient density puts many grains to shame, specifically in terms of protein, fat, and mineral content.
Quinoa is native to the Andes mountains regions of South America and has been a valuable superfood since around 3000 BC. It’s said that the Incas referred to quinoa as “chisaya mama,” meaning “mother of all grains.”3 The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has designated quinoa as a “super crop” due to the crop’s resilient ability to grow under all kinds of not-so-favorable conditions, and for its potential to feed the hungry across the world.4
Quinoa is packed with many vitamins and minerals including:
Health Benefit #1 – Reducing Diabetes Risk
The germ makes up 60% of the entire quinoa seed, opposed to the 3% portion that the germ takes up in a wheat kernel. The unusually high ratio of protein to carbohydrate helps explain quinoa’s ability to help regulate blood sugar. Quinoa is also a great source of soluble fiber that helps control blood sugar and slow the breakdown of carbohydrates to glucose. The anti-inflammatory nutrients, including phenolic acids, vitamin E compounds, and cell wall polysaccharides, all help reduce unwanted inflammation associated with type 2 diabetes risk.
Health Benefit #2 – Lowering Cholesterol
The high fiber content of quinoa may help reduce cholesterol. Soluble fiber combines with bile acids to be excreted by the body and in turn, reduce total cholesterol and levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol. Quinoa serves as a healthy alternative to animal-based protein.
Health Benefit #3 – Controlling Blood Pressure
Quinoa has the highest potassium levels of all grains, a mineral essential for balancing sodium blood levels and maintaining lower blood pressure. Quinoa is also a rich source of magnesium, a vasodilator that helps to lower blood pressure.
Health Benefit #4 – Supports Weight Loss and Maintenance of Weight
The high content of fiber and protein in quinoa keeps you feeling full longer, and can help curb your appetite. It’s also suggested that the balanced blood sugar levels associated with quinoa intake may help reduce cravings. Fiber helps food move through the intestines and promotes gastrointestinal regularity.
There are countless varieties of quinoa, but the most commonly cultivated, and commonly purchased types are white, red, and black quinoa. “Quinoa” sometimes refers to white quinoa, or ivory quinoa in general, as this is the most common variety available in stores. Red quinoa is a beautiful fiery shade that gives a great touch to dishes; it tends to hold its shape a little better after cooking, making it a good choice for cold salads. Black quinoa is a distinct mixture of black, brown, and red-shaded grains that is sure to stand out in any dish. Black quinoa is said to hold a slightly earthier and sweeter taste profile than other varieties.
Quinoa can also be purchased as flakes, which cook faster than the whole grain, and make a great hot breakfast cereal. Quinoa can also be stone ground into whole grain flour that is a perfect wheat-free flour option for many recipes.
You can purchase quinoa in small pre-packaged containers or in bulk. Just keep in mind that quinoa expands when it cooks, so you may not need a ton. On the other hand, when stored in an airtight container in a cool place, quinoa can be used for months. There is a high percentage of fatty acids in quinoa, so storing your quinoa in the refrigerator can further prevent spoiling and give it an even longer shelf life of up to 6 months. So, why not opt for quinoa in bulk and always have a batch on hand?
Quinoa seeds have a coating of naturally-forming chemicals known as saponins. This coating serves as protection during cultivation, but it unfortunately leaves a bitter residue that is not easy on the palate. You’ll find in most commercially bought quinoa the saponins are already removed, but if you buy quinoa in bulk, it is likely that this won’t be the case. You will need to properly rinse the seeds by placing the seeds in a strainer, and running cold water over the seeds while gently rubbing them together with your hands. 7
The general rule for cooking quinoa is using 1 part grain to 2 parts liquid. This means that you will need 2 cups of water for every 1 cup of dry quinoa. One cup of dry quinoa should yield around 3 cups of cooked quinoa. Cooking quinoa is a delicate process and if you overcook it, you will end up with a heavy and mushy mess. To properly cook quinoa, add the water to the quinoa in a medium pot, and bring to a boil on the stovetop. When the water reaches a boil, cover the pot, reduce heat to medium/low, and simmer until all of the liquid is absorbed. This will take 12-15 minutes. You will notice that the quinoa becomes sort of translucent, and the detached white germs appear to be white-spiraled strands.
*For extra flavor, try toasting your quinoa seeds on the stovetop for a few minutes before adding the liquid. This will leave you with an extra toasted and nutty flavor. You can also try cooking your quinoa in a low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth instead of water for added flavor.
If you find a way to incorporate this great plant protein into your diet, let us know with a comment.