Thursday, February 28, 2013

Quinoa vs Rice – which is better?

Everybody knows rice. I mean, who hasn’t tried it at some point? It’s ubiquitous all over the world. But quinoa (pronounced keen’-wah) is lesser known, and that’s a shame, because it really is delicious.

Like most people, I eat rice, and I’ve tried all sorts. Rice comes in a few different colors: red, brown, white and black, and there’s even wild rice, but that’s a member of a different plant species. I like rice, but it hasn’t featured hugely on my blog, although it was most recently in my post on Nasi Goreng. In dishes like that, it’s really a necessity. But I actually prefer quinoa. Let’s compare the two and see why. Let's start with rice.


As a cereal grain, it is the most widely consumed staple food for a large part of the world's human population, especially in Asia and the West Indies. It is the grain with the second-highest worldwide production, after maize (corn), according to data for 2010.

Genetic evidence has shown that rice originates from a single domestication 8,200–13,500 years ago, in the Pearl River valley region of China. Previously, archaeological evidence had suggested that rice was domesticated in the Yangtze River valley region in China. From East Asia, rice spread to Southeast and South Asia. Rice was introduced to Europe through Western Asia, and to the Americas through European colonization.

Though rice has some nutritional benefits, its high starch and therefore carbohydrate content are a cause for concern. Certainly a necessary staple in countries where people are starving. They need as many carbohydrates as they can find. But for the rest of us in the Western world, who sit a vast majority of the day, I think it should be avoided or at least minimized. It’s just too starchy. It drives up blood glucose which can lead to diabetes.

Another cause for concern is rice and rice products contain arsenic, a known poison and Group 1 carcinogen. There is no safe level of arsenic, but, as of 2012, a limit of 10 parts per billion has been established in the United States for drinking water, twice the level of 5 parts per billion originally proposed by the EPA. Consumption of one serving of some varieties of rice gives more exposure to arsenic than consumption of 1 liter of water that contains 5 parts per billion arsenic; however, the amount of arsenic in rice varies widely with the greatest concentration in brown rice and rice grown on land formerly used to grow cotton; in the United States, Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is studying this issue, but has not established a limit. White rice grown in the afore-mentioned states, which account for 76 percent of American-produced rice, had higher levels of arsenic, possibly because of past use of arsenic based pesticides to control cotton weevils. Rice from Thailand and India contain the least arsenic among rice varieties in one study.

Mmmh, worth thinking about. So, enough about rice. We know it well enough. What a lot of people don’t know about is quinoa.


Quinoa is a grain-like crop grown primarily for its edible seeds. It's actually a "pseudo-cereal" rather than a true cereal, or grain.

Quinoa originated in the Andean region of Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia and Peru where it was successfully domesticated 3,000 - 4,000 yrs ago for human consumption, though archaeological evidence shows a non-domesticated association with pastoral herding some 5,200-7,000 yrs ago.

The Incas who held the crop to be sacred, referred to quinoa as the “mother of all grains” and it was the Incan emperor who would traditionally sow the first seeds of the season.

The nutrient composition is very good compared with common cereals. Quinoa seeds contain essential amino acids like lysine and good quantities of calcium, phosphorus, and iron. Nutritional evaluations indicate that it is a source of complete protein and is a good source of calcium, which is useful for vegans and those who are lactose intolerant. Quinoa is gluten-free and considered easy to digest.

Quinoa has a light, fluffy texture when cooked, and its mild, slightly nutty flavor makes it an alternative to white rice or couscous.

Most boxed/packaged quinoa has already been rinsed for convenience, and cooking instructions therefore suggest only a brief rinse before cooking, if at all. If quinoa has not been rinsed, the first step is to remove the saponins, a process that requires rinsing the quinoa in ample running water for several minutes in either a fine strainer or a cheesecloth. Removal of the saponin helps with digestion; the soapy nature of the compound makes it act as a laxative.

One cooking method is to treat quinoa much like rice, bringing two cups (or less) of water to a boil with one cup of seed, covering at a low simmer and cooking for 10–15 minutes or until the germ separates from the seed. The cooked germ looks like a tiny curl and should have a slight bite to it (like al dente pasta). As an alternative, one can use a rice cooker to prepare quinoa, treating it just like white rice (for both cooking cycle and water amounts).

Vegetables and seasonings can also be added to make a wide range of dishes. Chicken or vegetable stock can be substituted for water during cooking, adding flavor. It is also suited to vegetable pilafs, complementing bitter greens like kale.

Quinoa can serve as a high-protein breakfast food when mixed with, for example, honey, almonds, or berries; it is also sold as a dry product, much like corn flakes. Quinoa flour can be used in wheat-free and gluten-free baking.

Quinoa may be germinated in its raw form to boost its nutritional value. As I've explored here before, germination activates natural enzymes and multiplies vitamin content. It, in fact, has a notably short germination period: only 2–4 hours resting in a glass of clean water is enough to make it sprout and release gases, as opposed to, e.g., 12 hours with wheat. This process, besides its nutritional enhancements, softens the seeds, making them suitable to be added to salads and other cold foods.

With regard to overall vitamins and minerals, quinoa scores highest with more Vitamin B12, Folate, Calcium, Iron, Potassium, and Zinc than brown or white rice. It’s lower in carbs and higher in protein and fiber, as illustrated below.

NUTRITIONAL COMPARISON (based on 100g of raw product)

Brown Rice
White Rice
63 g
72.8 g
79 g
13.1 g
7.5 g
6.6 g
5.9 g
3.4 g
0 g
5.8 g
2.68 g
0.58 g

Conclusion: while quinoa and brown rice have similar compositions, quinoa comes out on top all around. 

Because it's clear how healthy quinoa is, you might want to try it sometime, rotating it in among the other grains you eat. There must be a good reason why the United Nations recently declared 2013 the “International Year of Quinoa”.

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