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Quinoa: Facts, Varieties, Nutrition, Benefits, & More

Have you tried quinoa before (pronounced KEEN-wah)? Although quinoa can be cooked and eaten in a similar way to most grains, the quinoa plant itself is more similar to beetroots and spinach. People can eat both the seeds and leaves of this versatile, nutritious plant. Quinoa is a grain crop grown mainly for its edible seeds. These seeds are what we call quinoa.

Quinoa is one of those foods that not many people are familiar with. It is typically eaten in ways similar to most grains. This superfood can be prepared fairly quickly and incorporated into a variety of dishes.

Not only is it easy to make, but it comes with tons of health benefits. Additionally, it is a great option for getting in nutrients and meets the needs for those on a gluten-free diet.

This article tells you everything you need to know about quinoa.

Fun Fact:Inca warriors ate balls of quinoa and fat to keep them going on long marches and in battle.

History & Facts

Quinoa belongs to the Chenopodiaceae family, which is a subfamily of the flowering plant family Amaranthaceae. Quinoa has been cultivated in the South American region of the Andes approximately for the past 8000 years (1). There are archeological discoveries of quinoa in tombs of Tarapacá, Calama, and Arica in Chile, and in different regions of Peru. Existing historical evidence indicates that the domestication of quinoa by people in America may have occurred between 3,000 and 5,000 BC (2).

Before its domestication, wild quinoa was likely used as a source of food from its leaves and seeds. For example, there is early evidence of quinoa on pottery from indigenous cultures depicting a quinoa plant (3). Hundreds of years ago, the Inca people considered this ancient grain a sacred food.

Today, the largest producers of this crop are Bolivia and Peru. From 1980 to 2011, the production of quinoa increased by 300% (4).

Quinoa has gained popularity as a health food in the United States and other Westernized countries, particularly because it is easy-to-grow, nutritious, and a great gluten-free grain alternative (5).

Quinoa leaves, stems and grains have been used for medicinal purposes for centuries. It has been used for healing wounds, reducing swelling, soothing pain (toothache), and disinfecting the urinary tract.

Summary:Quinoa stems from the region of South America, used for cooking in addition to other medicinal and health-focused purposes.

Varieties of Quinoa

There are more than 120 different varieties of quinoa that have been identified, some of which include pink, orange, and purple!

White, red, and black quinoa are the most commonly cultivated and commercialized today. Apart from the color, they are very similar and can be used in the same recipes. Nutritionally, there are minimal differences between them.

Although it’s usually categorized with cereal grains like barley and oats, quinoa is a pseudo-cereal grain. This means that although the seed is what is used and prepared, it is eaten similarly to a grain. Pseudocereals are a good source of starch, fiber, proteins, minerals, vitamins, and phytochemicals such as saponins, polyphenols, and betalains with potential health benefits. Other examples of pseudocereal grains include amaranth and buckwheat.

Summary:There are over 120 different varieties of quinoa with the most common today being red, white, and black.

Nutrition Facts

In general, most types of quinoa contain similar amounts of nutrients. Andean populations highly value quinoa and rely on its high nutritional value. A big reason for this is that it is the main protein source for rural populations, used as a substitution for animal protein. This is because, like animal protein sources, quinoa seeds contain all nine essential amino acids for proper human health (6). Moreover, due to its high protein content and amino acid profile, quinoa is suggested to be an alternative to dairy products (7).


In every cup (185 grams) of cooked quinoa, you will find the following macronutrients (8):

  • Calories: 222 calories (kcal)
  • Protein: 8.14 grams (g)
  • Total fat: 3.55 grams (g)
  • Carbohydrate: 39.4 grams (g)
  • Fiber: 5.18 grams (g)

You may notice that quinoa contains a moderate amount of fat. This is because the oil in quinoa is rich in essential fatty acids such as oleic, linoleic, and linolenic, also known as omega 3, 6, and 9 fatty acids. The portion of (poly-) unsaturated fatty acid accounts for 87%–88% of the total fatty acids of the seed. Unsaturated fatty acids promote health benefits such as strengthening the immune system, preventing cardiovascular diseases, improving cell membrane function, and increasing insulin sensitivity (9).

The total dietary fiber content of quinoa seeds is close to what is found in other cereals. This ranges from 7.0% to 9.7 %. Some studies have found up to 17.2% of dietary fiber in quinoa harvested in the south of Italy (10).

Moreover, due to the absence of gluten, quinoa is suitable for celiac patients or gluten-related disorders (11). Quinoa has garnered attention as a protein source due to the high quality and balanced composition of amino acids content of its protein—superior to wheat, barley, and soybean (12).

Summary:Quinoa is a gluten-free grain high in healthy fats and fiber.

Vitamins and Minerals

In every cup (185 grams) of cooked quinoa, there are the following vitamins and minerals (13):

  • Calcium: 31.4 milligrams (mg)
  • Iron: 2.76 milligrams (mg)
  • Magnesium: 118 milligrams (mg)
  • Phosphorus: 281 milligrams (mg)
  • Potassium: 318 milligrams (mg)
  • Manganese: 1.17 milligrams (mg)
  • Selenium: 5.18 micrograms (µg)
  • Folate: 77.7 micrograms (µg)
  • Choline: 42.6 milligrams (mg)
  • Beta carotene: 5.55 micrograms (µg)
  • Vitamin A: 9.25 IU
  • Lutein + zeaxanthin: 98 micrograms (µg)
  • Vitamin E: 1.16 milligrams (mg)

In addition to the exceptional nutritional profile of the macronutrients in quinoa, there are just as many vitamins and minerals. The micronutrients in quinoa, including antioxidants, vitamin A, vitamin E, folate, and more, can provide valuable therapeutic properties (14). Such research has found that the vitamins and minerals in quinoa play a role in enhancing immune function, assisting in cell repair, aiding in the metabolism of cells throughout the body, and even preventing cancer cell growth (15).

Summary:Quinoa is high in vitamins and minerals, especially vitamin A, vitamin E, and folate.

Health Benefits

Not only is quinoa nutrient-dense, but it may offer surprising health benefits, too.

It May Help Prevent Cancer

The seeds in quinoa are rich in compounds called phenols. Phenols have been found to have antioxidant and anticancer properties. Considerable amounts of ferulic, sinapinic, and gallic acids, kaempferol, isorhamnetin, and rutin were obtained in quinoa extracts. These named compounds were linked to an inhibitory effect on prostate cancer cell proliferation and motility (16).

Quinoa seeds are the main edible part of the quinoa plant, nevertheless, quinoa leaves are rich in phenolic compounds that present antioxidant and anticancer properties. Plant polyphenols and phenolic content are beneficial to human health, due to their antioxidative potential. It has been suggested that such compounds can aid the risk reduction of cardiovascular diseases, neurodegenerative disorders, and diabetes (17).

Summary:Quinoa is high in phenols, which have been noted to reduce the risk of certain types of cancers like prostate cancer.

May aid in weight loss

Quinoa has many properties that make it a food good for weight loss. It’s higher in protein than similar foods, such as rice, corn, and whole wheat. Protein is considered a key factor for weight loss, as it boosts metabolism and feelings of fullness. In doing so, it may help prevent obesity and related diseases.

Fibers are also important for weight loss, promoting decreased calorie intake by increasing feelings of fullness and improving gut health. Quinoa is higher in fiber than many whole-grain foods.

The GI value of quinoa is relatively low, and low-glycemic foods have been shown to prevent overeating and decrease hunger.

Summary:Quinoa can help increase satiety and has been noted to be a helpful food to aid in weight loss.

Lower blood sugar levels

People with type 2 diabetes are unable to use insulin effectively, causing high blood sugar levels and various complications.

Refined carbs are linked to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease, while whole grains like quinoa are associated with reduced risk.

One human study compared the effects of quinoa with traditional gluten-free wheat products. Quinoa lowered both blood triglycerides and free fatty acids. It also affected blood sugar levels to a lesser degree than gluten-free pasta, gluten-free bread, and traditional bread.

Summary:Studies have found quinoa can have a lower impact on blood sugar, making it a better option than other grains especially for people with type 2 diabetes.

Ways to Consume

Quinoa is most often combined with legumes and cereals. In the Western region of the world, it is also added to dishes like salads, and entrees with vegetables, and is sometimes used as a main protein source. It is known as the most versatile of the grains in the Andes for human consumption.

  • Cereals: Quinoa can be processed or semi-processed as “cereals” which are ready-to-eat and generally consumed at breakfast. These include puffed, granular, flaked, and shredded. It can also be made into a hot cereal to which a hot liquid is added before consumption. After obtaining quinoa flakes, these can be used in a wide range of applications in other food products (e.g., juices, soups, pies, or cakes), as they require less cooking time than other grains (18).
  • Flour: Virtually all flour industry products can be made from quinoa whole grains and flour. Recently quinoa flour has begun being incorporated into bread, noodles, and in things like sponge cakes and biscuits. The main advantage of using quinoa as a food supplement in the flour industry is that it helps meet the growing international demand for gluten-free products. Using quinoa flour for noodle production offers an alternative for those who suffer from celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.
  • Expanded/puffed quinoa: this is another quinoa product that has been consumed for several millennia. Puffed quinoa can then be consumed directly, or ground into an instant product, as an instant cereal, or as an ingredient in energy bars. However, the puffing process may cause a loss of protein and omega fatty acids, hindering the nutritional quality (19).

Fun Fact:NASA has proposed quinoa as an ideal food for long-duration space flights.

Potential Risks

Although quinoa is an extremely nutritious food, it can be bothersome for some people.

It May Cause Digestive Distress

Because quinoa contains a relatively high amount of fiber, it can cause uncomfortable GI symptoms in some people like bloating, stomach cramping, and gas. For those who have gastrointestinal issues like irritable bowel syndrome, or who are sensitive to high amounts of fiber, consuming quinoa may worsen these symptoms. For some people, this can result in stomach aches, diarrhea, bloating, and even discomfort. This happens because for some people the body cannot handle too much fiber present in it.

It Contains Saponins

Quinoa is naturally high in a compound called saponins. Saponins are naturally bitter and are in several other foods like legumes, vegetables, and herbs. The bitter taste of these compounds makes the plant less palatable to birds, insects, and humans which helps to protect it from being eaten in the wild. Although normally not noticeable, if quinoa is not washed well or cooked enough, saponin can cause stomach issues for some.


Quinoa is a member of the Chenopodiaceae family and is high in oxalates.  High intakes of oxalate can increase the risk of kidney stones for sensitive individuals (20). Ask your doctor if you may be at risk before adding it to your diet. These effects can be reduced by rinsing and soaking quinoa before cooking.

Summary:Although quinoa is generally safe to consume, it can cause issues for people with digestive issues and those at risk of kidney stones.

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s the difference between couscous and quinoa?

Although couscous and quinoa appear to be very similar, they are quite different.  They are both small and grain-like and consumed as alternatives to rice and pasta.

Couscous is a type of small-beaded pasta made from steamed semolina, which is a flour made from durum wheat.  Alternatively, quinoa is a seed of the quinoa plant, that is typically eaten as a grain.  They also have different nutritional qualities.

Fun Fact:Chicha is a traditional Andean beer brewed from fermented quinoa.


Quinoa is tasty, easy to make, and packed with more nutrients than most other grains. It is high in protein, and fiber and rich in vitamins, minerals, plant compounds, and antioxidants.

Quinoa is gluten-free, making it a great option for those with celiac disease or who are on a gluten-free diet. Furthermore, consuming quinoa may help decrease the risk of cancer, lower blood sugar levels, and help with weight loss.

This easy-to-make grain is a great place to start if you want to get a ton of nutrients or try a new replacement for rice and pasta.