What Is Quinoa?

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For years, the health-conscious among us have been raving about quinoa — and for good reason. It’s a favorite carb option among gluten-free folks, since it’s packed with protein and fiber . But, what exactly is this so-called “superfood,” and is it as healthy as we think?

Quinoa was first cultivated by farmers in the Andes mountains in Peru and Bolivia between 5,000 and 7,000 years ago. While it’s often referred to as a grain, this is a common misconception — quinoa is a broadleaf plant, which makes it a pseudocereal along with other ancient “grains” like amaranth and buckwheat. (Grains like wheat and barley grow as grasses.) Of course, the seeds of all of these plants are used similarly in food: ground into flour, for example, or boiled, like rice, as quinoa’s commonly prepared. The leaves of the quinoa plant are also edible, though they’re hard to come by except in regions where the crop is grown.

Nutritionally, quinoa is pretty much a no-brainer — it’s relatively rich in protein and fiber (8 grams and 5 grams, respectively, per cup), making it more filling and healthful than other gluten-free carb alternatives, like brown rice or potatoes. It’s also a good source of magnesium and calcium, which means it’s a must for those who don’t eat dairy. It has a low glycemic index, so it won’t cause blood-sugar spikes like other carbohydrates. Some studies even suggest quinoa is a “complete protein” source — meaning it contains enough of each of the nine amino acids we need for proper nutrition. (Sort of takes one-pot meals to an even simpler level, doesn’t it?)

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