It may seem I am picking on @eatthisnotthat because I called them out before in Quinoa: Calories Don’t Tell The Whole Story, but I bear them no malice. Unfortunately, their brand name makes their tweets easy targets because every tweet sounds like a food choice recommendation. However, the folks behind Eat This, Not That! aren’t the only ones making claims like these. With all the enthusiasm about quinoa, we might expect some exaggerated statements will get thrown around and misinterpreted.
I just want to set the record straight for you, my readers, because I know a lot of you count on me to get the real story about quinoa.
No Quinoa Standard
The first thing to understand about quinoa is that nutritional data varies because there are so many different varieties of quinoa being cultivated. Unlike rice, wheat, corn and other grains, quinoa has not been subject to centuries of agricultural testing and scientific hybridization that leads to homogenization.
Yikes! I fell into gobbledyspeak. What does that mean?
That means when farmers choose which seeds to plant, over time the seeds they choose become more and more alike. This hasn’t happened to quinoa yet because the quinoa industry is in its infancy. In fact, when farmers have planted quinoa in new locations, they have seen new hybrids spring up.
So when you look for nutritional data on quinoa, you will find inconsistencies like the nutritional differences between varieties of Ancient Harvest quinoa. You may dredge up different values than I did. And it is possible that someday scientists will create a super-quinoa with more protein than meat and eggs, but until then…
Quinoa Is a Complete Protein
At the heart of all these rumors lies the indisputable fact that quinoa provides all nine of the essential amino acids necessary for humans. Very few vegetable proteins can make that claim – not rice, nor wheat, nor legumes, for example.
Actually, we need twenty-two amino acids, but our bodies can make all the others as long as our diet includes the nine essential ones found in quinoa.
But how does quinoa protein compare to meat and eggs? Well, first off, the statement quinoa has as much protein as meat or eggs doesn’t specify amounts so on some level it can be true. A cup of cooked white quinoa can have more protein than a 2 ounce hot dog or a large egg, but the comparison fails because the sizes of the servings are different.
Besides, quinoa can be prepared at different “strengths.” Most sources recommend a 2:1 liquid to quinoa ratio, and that is likely the ratio used when calculating a “cooked quinoa” nutritional analysis. However, many chefs prefer using less liquid to create a drier finished product. Some recipes I have seen lately recommend as little as a 1:1 ratio. Quinoa cooked with half as much liquid will have 50% more nutrients per cooked cup: 50% more protein, 50% more calories, 50% more carbs.
Quinoa Is a Carb With a Lot of Protein
Some people seem to get this backwards. They promote quinoa as a protein that happens to have a few carbs. Not true. Along with the protein, fiber, minerals and other goodness, quinoa carries a lot of carbohydrates and calories. Granted these are complex carbohydrates with a glycemic index of 35 and some fiber to cancel out the carbs, but these carbs and calories should not be ignored.
When I see someone swap out the ground meat in their tacos with quinoa and then brag about how healthy it is to serve taco flavored quinoa in taco shells or flour tortillas, I have to shake my head. Did you bother to count the calories? Are you sure you got as much protein this way? If you are diabetic or have had gastric-bypass surgery, this sort of one-for-one quinoa-for-meat substitution may not be a healthy choice.
I use quinoa as a replacement for other, less healthy, “white” carbohydrates (white bread, white rice, white potatoes). I like knowing that when I replace my carbs with quinoa, I can cut back some on the meat or eggs without a net loss of protein, and then I can add more vegetables to bulk out my meal.
But when replacing meat with vegetable protein sources, you have to consider a lot more than just the net protein, especially if your health requires you watch your consumption of carbohydrates and/or calories.
Compare Quinoa Protein to Eggs and Meat
So let’s go back to the statement, quinoa has as much protein as meat or eggs. Does it really?I placed the information available from the USDA in the chart above to demonstrate that when you compare quinoa to an equal size of eggs or meats, you get less than half the protein. Another way to consider it: if you measure out enough cooked quinoa to get 6 grams of protein (to match that in a large egg), you will have more than twice as many calories (about 163).
Of course, the numbers may work out differently if you consult another source for your nutrition information. However, in general, quinoa has much less protein than an equal portion of calories or ounces of eggs and/or meat.
There are other considerations, like saturated fat, cholesterol, and fiber when choosing your protein sources. Plus, many Americans consume a day’s worth of protein in one meal and can readily forgo protein at others. Athletes have different caloric needs than those who live more sedentary lives. In the end, you should consult your doctor and nutritionist when making radical changes to your diet because only someone familiar with your health needs and nutritional goals can give you the best advice in these matters.
But please promise me you will correct anyone who tries to tell you quinoa has as much protein as eggs or meat. It does not.
Did you know if you aren’t subscribing to my blog, you risk missing out on new posts and quinoa recipes? Subscribe today and learn tasty new ways to enjoy quinoa along with other exciting (and sometimes exotic) ingredients.
You may also follow @keenonquinoa on Twitter.