Integrate This: Quinoa

The perfect choice for eaters with gluten sensitivities or those searching for a wheat alternative.

click to enlarge Crimson beet quinoa salad. Rollin' Oats cafe associate Susie Channell gives out samples to customers, which often results in them ordering it. - Kimberly DeFalco
Kimberly DeFalco
Crimson beet quinoa salad. Rollin' Oats cafe associate Susie Channell gives out samples to customers, which often results in them ordering it.

Quinoa has broken out of the vegetarian sphere to become a rock star in the food world.

A mix of nutritional superpowers and diverse culinary capabilities, the ancient Inca grain has captured the attention and imagination of foodies and nutritionists.

With all nine essential amino acids, quinoa is a complete protein, like meat, which makes it an ideal source for those shunning animal-based foods. And, it's gluten-free.

Quinoa, (pronounced KEEN-wah) from a Quechua Indian word, originated in the Andean region of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru around 5,000 years ago.

When NASA scientists were searching for an ideal food for long-term human space missions decades ago, they came across the grain. With quinoa's exceptional balance of amino acids, the scientists deemed it unrivaled in the plant or animal kingdom for life-sustaining nutrients.

But while ancient cultures have lived off it for centuries, quinoa remained little more than a curiosity outside the Andes until recently. Mainstream grocers now shelve pasta, cookies, flours, burgers and breads next to its wheat-based counterparts.

Rollin’ Oats assistant manager Gina Simmons says the grocer tries to accommodate the growing demand for quinoa by finding new products and carrying more in its café.

Popping up on mainstream menus across Tampa Bay, restaurateurs are fulfilling the demands with innovative choices for quinoa lovers, too.

Bay-area based First Watch restaurants recognized the need and added Pesto Chicken Quinoa and Cherry Chicken Quinoa Power Bowls to their offerings, and Datz on South MacDill Avenue includes a red quinoa crunch parfait on its menu.

St. Pete’s 400 Beach Seafood and Tap House even featured a spinach mushroom quinoa with blackened yellowfin tuna during Fourth of July weekend.

Chef Ana Davis said the special was a huge success.

"It's fun to experiment with healthy food alternatives and side dishes," Davis said. "We feature quinoa often on our salad table and Sunday brunches now."

Although quinoa looks and cooks like a grain, food experts say that it's a seed or chenopod, and is related to species like beets and spinach. Its seeds have a light, nutty taste, becoming almost translucent when cooked.

With over 120 varieties, most quinoa that’s eaten in the United States comes from South America. However, 35 types are produced in the U.S. The most commonly cultivated and commercialized are white (sometimes known as yellow or ivory), red and black quinoas.

Quinoa, along with ancient foods like chia, is the current consumer queen, and for good reason.

Most plant foods lack one or more essential amino acids. Strict vegetarians have to be careful to consume plant products that, taken together, provide these amino acids. Some, however, contain complete proteins and provide all essential amino acids found in meat, including soy and quinoa.

Quinoa also has a high ratio of protein to carbohydrate, since the germ makes up about 60 percent of the grain. A source of iron and calcium, quinoa’s has the highest potassium of the whole grains, too.

When choosing which quinoa to cook, buy the prewashed kind, even though it may cost a few cents more.

Thoroughly washing quinoa before cooking removes its bitter saponin coating, nature’s way of making the high-protein seeds unattractive to birds and other seed eaters. Saponin is mildly toxic, causing low-level gastrointestinal distress in some people.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations declared 2013 as the "International Year of Quinoa." And in March, the Whole Grains Council named quinoa its grain of the month.

There’s been a rapid increase in the diagnosis of celiac disease and milder forms of gluten intolerance, and those afflicted are looking for alternatives. Farmers and scientists are trying to determine the best growing conditions for the grain.

Considering the modern Western diet — which consists, in large part, of grain carbohydrates — alternatives like quinoa are coming to the forefront.

Today’s wheat is very different from the wheat our ancestors ate. Proportions of gluten protein in wheat has increased as a result of hybridization.

Until the 19th century, wheat was also typically mixed with other grains, beans and nuts. Pure wheat flour has been milled into refined white flour only during the last 200 years.

This high-gluten, refined grain diet was not a part of previous generations’ diets, and humans have not fared well with the somewhat sudden changes. 

Of the 302 quinoa books available on Amazon, 92 percent were published in the last three years.

Information seems to be king, and among the available “superfoods,” quinoa is queen.


Black Bean-Quinoa Burgers
Serves 8
Vegetarian Times


1/2 cup quinoa
1 small onion, finely chopped (1 cup)
6 oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, drained and finely chopped (1/4 cup)
1 1/2 cups cooked black beans, or 1 15-oz. can black beans, rinsed and drained, divided
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp. dried steak seasoning
8 whole-grain hamburger buns


1. Stir together quinoa and 1 1/2 cups water in small saucepan, and season with salt if desired. Bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer 20 minutes, or until all liquid is absorbed. (You should have 1 1/2 cups cooked quinoa.)

2. Meanwhile, place onion and sun-dried tomatoes in medium nonstick skillet, and cook over medium heat. (The oil left on the tomatoes should be enough to sauté the onion.) Cook 3 to 4 minutes, or until onion has softened. Stir in 3/4 cup black beans, garlic, steak seasoning and 1 1/2 cups water. Simmer 9 to 11 minutes, or until most of liquid has evaporated.

3. Transfer bean-onion mixture to food processor, add 3/4 cup cooked quinoa and process until smooth. Transfer to bowl, and stir in remaining 3/4 cup quinoa and remaining 3/4 cup black beans. Season with salt and pepper, if desired, and cool.

4. Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and generously coat baking sheet with cooking spray. Shape bean mixture into 8 patties (1/2 cup each), and place on prepared baking sheet. Bake 20 minutes, or until patties are crisp on top. Flip patties with spatula, and bake 10 minutes more or until both sides are crisp and brown. Serve on buns.


Health pearls “The doctor of the future will no longer treat the human frame with drugs, but rather will cure and prevent disease with nutrition.” —Thomas Edison

Documentary pick of the week Food Fight, released in 2008, examines the counter-culture revolution of the food movement. Director Chris Taylor portrays the American agricultural policy and food culture developed in the 20th century, and how the California food movement rebelled against agribusiness giants to launch the local organic food movement. Available on Netflix and iTunes.

Granny’s remedies For bee and wasp stings, make a paste of meat tenderizer (or saliva). Keep a bottle in your car’s glove box for emergencies. Use tobacco on bee stings.

Stay in the loop with Bay area outdoor markets Tampa Bay Markets and St. Pete District Markets are collectives of community farmers markets that feature locally grown foods, crafts and live music. Both can be found on Facebook.

Free lecture: Is Gluten Your Body's Worst Enemy? Hosted at Nature's Food Patch, Liat Golan — RD, LD/N/Bee Well Nutrition — will examine if gluten may be the reason you're sick, tired and bloated. Thursday, July 10. Free. 6:30 p.m. 1225 Cleveland St., Clearwater, 727-443-6703,

Free lecture: Preparing Raw, Gluten-free and Easily Digested Foods Dr. L.J. Rose will demonstrate simple recipes and explain the benefits of dietary lifestyle changes at Abby's Health & Nutrition. Call for reservations. Tuesday, July 15. Free. 7 p.m. 14374 N. Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa, 813-265-4951,

Free lecture: Total Food Makeover Dr. Dex Alvarez of Palma Ceia Chiropractic & Wellness Center will teach how to change your way of thinking when it comes to food. Reading food labels, understanding the danger of toxins and the health risks of weight gain are among the featured topics at this Rollin' Oats event. Thursday, July 17. Free. 6:15 p.m. 1021 N. MacDill Ave., Tampa, 813-873-7428,

I am not a healthcare professional, but I am a passionate advocate of natural health, as well as a voracious reader and lecture attendee. I just want to learn and share. If you have any suggestions, news events or feature ideas please email me at [email protected]

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