Six Facts About Quinoa

What you don’t know about this superfood may surprise you—and your taste buds.

You know how to pronounce quinoa (but just in case, it’s KEEN-wah), you’ve heard it’s nutritious, and you’ve seen recipes for it—maybe even tried one yourself. But what you still don’t know about this delicious, versatile, wholesome grain might surprise you. Here, six facts about today’s hottest superfood.

It’s not really a grain. Unlike, say, barley, millet, or wheat, quinoa is not a grain but a seed. Its botanical name is chenopodium quinoa, and its closest cousins are spinach, beets, and chard (the quinoa plant’s leaves are edible, too). But because we cook and eat the seed in a similar way to grains, it’s classified as a pseudo-cereal, so it’s fine to call it a grain.

It comes in a rainbow of colors. There’s a mind-boggling 120-plus varieties of quinoa, but those that are most commonly cultivated, and the types you’ll find in the market, are white quinoa (also known as yellow or ivory), red, and black. You can also buy quinoa flakes and quinoa flour.  

It’s a complete protein. Quinoa is 15 percent protein, but what’s more important nutritionally is that it’s a complete protein source. That means it contains all nine essential amino acids, which, while common in animal sources, is rare in plants. Quinoa also provides a dose of fiber and iron. The best part? All this nutrition comes at just 111 calories per ½ cup of cooked quinoa.

It’s gluten-free. If you have celiac disease or eat a gluten-free diet, quinoa’s excellent nutritional profile makes it a smart choice to replace other grains. Researchers at Columbia University found that celiac sufferers who used alternative grains, such as quinoa, improved the quality of their diets by getting more key nutrients, like fiber, iron, and folate.  

It’s quick and simple to cook, as well as versatile. If you can cook rice, you can cook quinoa. Here’s the simplest way to prepare it: Combine 1 cup quinoa with 2 cups water (or broth) in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until tender and most of the liquid has been absorbed, about 15 to 20 minutes. Fluff with a fork before serving, like couscous. It will be slightly translucent and the white “string” (part of the hull) will be visible. Eat it as a breakfast cereal (add whatever you’d normally put on oatmeal) or as a delicious side dish, like this Quinoa Pilaf with Cherries and Pine Nuts.

It’s delicious in a Panera Broth Bowl: Two new offerings on the menu at your local Panera Bread bakery-cafe include quinoa. In the Lentil Quinoa Bowl with Chicken, the superfood is paired with a lentil blend, along with brown rice, tomato sofrito, and fresh spinach and kale with a lemon wheel in our umami soy-miso broth. You can also get a Lentil Quinoa Bowl with a hard-boiled egg instead of chicken.