Although it’s often referred to as a grain, quinoa is actually more closely related to vegetables like spinach, beets, or Swiss chard than cereal crops like wheat or rice. It is native to South America, where it has been cultivated in the Andes since ancient times.
A wide range of nutrients are packed into these tiny seeds. Here are some of the ones that may affect mental performance:
- For a “grain” food, quinoa contains an unusually high amount of protein (8g in one cup of cooked quinoa). Including protein in your meals helps you feel full and helps stabilize blood sugar levels, preventing that feeling of “crashing” or sluggishness.
- Quinoa is a good source of iron (35% Daily Value per one cup of cooked quinoa). Why is iron a big deal for the brain? It plays a crucial role in generating energy for the brain’s neurons, as well as for the making of neurotransmitters (the little messengers within the nervous system) and the myelin sheath that insulates nerves. Iron deficiency anemia has been linked to fatigue and apathy and, in young children, interferes with proper development of cognitive functions.
- Quinoa is a good source of Vitamin B2 (riboflavin), which is crucial for energy production, including the proper metabolism of the fuels our bodies need: carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. The brain has high energy demands, which means the fuel-supplying mechanism should stay in good working order. One cup of cooked quinoa provides 15% of the Daily Value of Vitamin B2. (Most of our cereals and flours are fortified with the B-vitamins, but quinoa is naturally high in this nutrient.)
Quinoa Prep 101
Quinoa is becoming increasingly available in grocery stores, where you can buy it bulk or prepackaged. The tiny seeds should be washed and rinsed before cooking to remove the naturally-occuring saponins that coat the seeds and have a bitter taste. Some seeds may come pre-washed, but it’s a good idea to do a quick taste while rinsing to make sure you get the saponins off.
Many instructions call for a ratio of two parts water to one part quinoa for cooking, which yields a texture close to porridge. For a fluffier texture, Lorna Sass, the author of Whole Grains for Busy People, suggests cooking the seeds in a big pot of boiling water (as if you were cooking pasta) for 12 minutes, then draining it. Experiment with both to find your favorite way of preparing quinoa, keeping in mind that this grain expands to a few times its uncooked volume.
If you’re new to quinoa, here are some ways to incorporate it into your diet:
- Combine chilled cooked quinoa with juicy orange slices, chopped walnuts, and chopped scallions for a refreshing salad with interesting textures and flavors. This salad travels well, so it would be great as a packed lunch for work.
- Use quinoa in place of oatmeal for breakfast, mixed with milk and topped with fruits or nuts.
- Use quinoa in place of pearl barley in your favorite soups or stews.
- If you can find ground quinoa flour, substitute it for part of the regular flour in your favorite muffin, bread, or loaf recipes. (Don’t take all the regular wheat flour out because quinoa is very low in gluten).
- Quinoa can be sprouted within 2 to 4 hours; use the sprouts in salads or sandwiches.