Quinoa – I’m keen, you’re keen, we’re all keen on quinoa!

Quinoa is actually a seed, rather than a grain, that can be traced back to ancient Peru. Packed with protein, quinoa contains every amino acid, and is particularly rich in lysine, which promotes healthy tissue growth throughout the body. Quinoa is also a good source of iron, magnesium, vitamin E, potassium, and fiber. People with high cholesterol will be singing this tune once they realize the benefits of quinoa (pronounced “KEEN-wah”), a South American seed that serves as a tasty and healthful stand-in for rice or couscous. One cup of cooked quinoa has 15% fewer carbohydrates and 60% more protein than a comparable amount of brown rice; it also has 25% more fiber, which can help lower blood cholesterol.

What is quinoa?

While quinoa is usually considered to be a whole grain, it is actually a seed, but can be prepared like whole grains such as rice or barley. Quinoa provides all 9 essential amino acids, making it a complete protein. Quinoa is a gluten-free and cholesterol-free whole grain, is kosher for Passover, and is almost always organic. Culinary ethnologists will be interested to know that quinoa was a staple food for thousands of years in the Andes region of South America as one of just a few crops the ancient Incas cultivated at such high altitude. Quinoa provides all 9 essential amino acids, making it a complete protein.

Quinoa is my favourite whole grain for three reasons.

  1. It takes less time to cook than other whole grains – just 10 to 15 minutes.
  2. Quinoa tastes great on its own, unlike other grains such as millet or teff. Add a bit of olive oil, sea salt and lemon juice and – yum!
  3. Out of all the whole grains, quinoa has the highest protein content, so it’s perfect for vegetarians and vegans.

Calorie count: Calorie count isn’t where you’ll find a difference between these two foods — quinoa and rice are virtually dead even here. This assumes, of course, that you haven’t added oil or other fats while cooking, which would up the counts.

Fibre: Here we start to see the differences. Brown rice has been promoted over white because it still contains the germ, which houses much of the grain’s nutrients and ups it fibre content. A cup of brown rice has 14 per cent of your recommended daily fibre intake. That’s impressive, but quinoa does rice even better, with 21 per cent.

Protein: People often don’t realize that grains can, in fact, be a source of protein. A cup of brown rice has 5 grams of protein, and when eaten with beans it provides you with a meal that has all the amino acids required for human health. (That’s why rice and beans is such a universal dish!) But quinoa not only has more than 50 per cent more protein with 8.1 grams per cup, it’s also one of just a few plant sources that’s a complete protein, meaning that it contains all of the needed protein-forming amino acids.

Vitamin B1: Both of these foods are important sources of thiamine or vitamin B1, which is needed by the body for nervous system and muscle function and electrolyte balance.

Riboflavin: Riboflavin, previously called vitamin B2, is another of the essential B vitamins. Brown rice doesn’t have much, with just 3 per cent of the recommended daily intake, but quinoa provides 12 per cent. Riboflavin helps you produce energy and is an antioxidant that fights harmful free radicals in your body.

Folate: Folate (called folic acid when it’s added to foods artificially) is particularly important for women of child-bearing age because of its role in preventing neural tube defects during fetal development. A cup of brown rice contains just a little bit of folate, with 2 per cent of the recommended daily intake, but the same amount of quinoa has 19 per cent.

Iron: Quinoa is a plant-based source of iron, which gives you a way to get this nutrient in your diet while consuming less or no meat; one cup provides 2.8 milligrams of iron or 15 per cent of your recommended daily intake. Brown rice has a little bit of iron as well, with 5 per cent. Try eating plant-based iron sources with foods containing vitamin C to up your iron intake — just a
squeeze of lemon juice on top helps — and avoid consuming them with black teas; the tannins can block iron absorption.

Zinc: Zinc is an essential trace element: we don’t need much of it for our health, but we do need it. Eating some quinoa will help you get it, with 13 per cent of your recommended daily amount in each cup. Brown rice is also a source with 8 per cent in the same amount. Zinc is particularly important for the healthy functioning of your immune system.

Vitamin B3: Back to those B vitamins again! Here’s a category where brown rice beats quinoa. Brown rice has 15 per cent of your recommended daily amount for niacin or vitamin B3, which is needed for the production of sex and stress hormones, compared to just 4 per cent for quinoa.

Selenium: Brown rice also has more selenium than quinoa, with 27 per cent of the amount you should get each day in a cup compared to 7 percent for quinoa. Selenium, a trace nutrient, is important for heart health and has been researched for its possible role in cancer prevention.

Cooking: The prep for each of these foods is pretty similar: just add the grain (or pseudograin!) and water to a pot and cook. With brown rice, use a ratio of 1 cup of rice to 1.5 cups of water or other liquid. For quinoa, your ratio is 1 cup of quinoa to 2 cups of liquids. There’s one important difference, however. Quinoa has a coating called saponin, which can make the grain taste bitter. Give yours a good rinse in a mesh sieve before cooking, or buy a brand that advertises that the saponin has already been removed in processing. Verdict: Brown rice is still the best choice for rice in terms of its health benefits, but with its impressive fibre, protein, and iron counts among other benefits, quinoa has it beat.


Quinoa Brown rice
Fibre 21% 14%
Protien 1 cup 8 grams 1 cup 5 grams
Iron 2.8 grams 1.2 grams
Iron 13% 8%