Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Quinoa Works

Nutritional Benefits of Quinoa
Here's a nutrient-rich salad comprising quinoa, strawberries, avocados and spinach.
Here's a nutrient-rich salad comprising quinoa, strawberries, avocados and spinach.
© Harald Walker/Westend61/Corbis

By now you know that quinoa is a pseudo-cereal that does double-duty as a grain (think of it as the Bruce Wayne/Batman of the nutrition world). You might not realize that it also packs impressive levels of protein, which is highly unusual for a plant-based product. In fact, one cup of quinoa generally features around 6 to 8 grams of protein [sources: Oaklander, Ware]. It's also one of precious few plant-based options that offer complete proteins, and its nutritional ante is upped by the fact that it has a high protein-to-carbohydrate ratio [source: Whole Grains Council].

"Protein burns calories and helps you feel satisfied longer," explains Caroline Kaufman, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the California Dietetic Association, adding that quinoa's status as a complete protein allows it to provide all of the essential amino acids our bodies need to not only survive, but also thrive. "Your body takes the amino acids and turns them into proteins that do important functions like helping you break down food, grow and repair tissue," says Kaufman. These essential amino acids, according to Kaufman, cannot be made by the human body, which is why we turn to food sources like quinoa for them. Finding complete proteins is, "unusual in plant foods," says Kaufman, adding that meat products are more common sources.

Protein pluses aside, plain, dry quinoa will run you about 160 calories per serving, and includes no sugar, sodium or cholesterol [source: Ware]. It also features impressive levels of fiber, magnesium, folate and even immune-boosting zinc [source: Oaklander]. Compared with other whole grains, quinoa has the highest level of potassium, which is excellent at controlling blood pressure, according to Kaufman.

Quinoa's status as naturally gluten-free has been a major perk for people who are sensitive to gluten or can't consume it at all, such as those with celiac disease. (Gluten is found in pasta, couscous, bread and other wheat-based products.) In fact, the gluten-free movement, coupled with increased interest in plant-based diets, is credited with quinoa's heightened popularity in recent years. "Quinoa is uniquely great because it has protein and iron and fits nicely into plant-based diets," says Kaufman, adding that a lot of other gluten-free foods are processed to the hilt, and actually are nutrient-poor, unlike quinoa.

Not surprisingly, quinoa has come to be hailed as one a nutritional superstar. "It's certainly considered by a lot of people as a superfood, like berries and nuts," says Kaufman.