It is about time I give my favourite food a plug as clients often ask for an alternative to gluten-containing grains. Wheat, oats, rye and barley are the most common food allergens in this country. Gluten contains a protein called gliadin, a common intestinal irritant. The most severe form of gluten sensitivity is known as Coeliac Disease, where the top layer of the intestinal membrane is worn thin, rather like a shaggy carpet going threadbare. The result is an inability to absorb sufficient nutrients with symptoms of extreme fatigue, bloating, diarrhoea, anaemia and weight loss. Adults may also experience depression, mouth ulcers and dermatitis.
Modern wheat is very high in gluten and our consumption of wheat has risen to such an extent that many people are eating it three times a day or more. Wheat is found in bread, biscuits, cakes, cereals, pastry and is an added ingredient in many processed foods. Experts believe at least 10–25 % of the population are showing signs of gluten sensitivity and malabsorption.
Not surprisingly, interest is growing in healthy alternatives to wheat and sustainable protein-rich foods of plant origin. Spotlight on quinoa (pronounced “keenwa”), an ancient food from high in the South American Andes. It thrives in harsh conditions of 10,000 feet, low rainfall, poor soil and freezing temperatures.
Long before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, the Inca civilisation revered quinoa as sacred because of its exceptional nutritional profile. The “Mother Grain” is much higher in protein than other cereals, rich in essential oils and an excellent source of calcium, phosphorus, iron, vitamin E and fibre. No wonder the Incas were famous for their strength and high-altitude climbing!
Quinoa is not technically a cereal grain but the seed of a fruit. It is pale yellow and resembles millet, but when cooked has a delicious nutty taste, suitable for sweet and savoury dishes. Unlike other grains, it is easy to digest and takes just 10-15 mins to prepare. Rinse in water, drain and bring to boil in a saucepan, then reduce to simmer and cook until the grains turn transparent (use two cups of water for every cup of quinoa).
Even NASA conclude it is a balanced, natural source of nutrients for humans and plan to use it on long-term missions into outer space. Not bad for the humble all-rounder first cultivated over 5000 years ago!
A delicious, practical alternative to rice or potatoes, use quinoa in soups, casseroles, stir-fries – or even cold in shakes, puddings or sprinkled over salads. It stores well in the fridge for up to 4 days. Supergrain quinoa is becoming “all the rage” as an alternative to wheat – buy it in your local health food shop ready to cook or as flour, pasta and breakfast flakes.
© 2011 Martina Watts MSc Nut Med, First Published Brighton Argus 2004