I used to write a column that appeared in the Canadian Journal of Dietetic Practice and Research. The column was called “Nutrition Stuff that Drives me Nuts.” The title was perhaps a bit inelegant, but it made the point that there are many nutrition practices and beliefs that are quite simply wrong-headed and misguided. What has me thinking about nutrition misinformation today is the flurry of ads I’ve seen recently in which cosmetic products boast about their vitamin/ mineral content. I’m sure you’ve seen them; perhaps even bought them: shampoos, moisturizers, foundation, lipstick, you name it. But the best one is an ad for mascara that claims to contain pro-vitamins! MASCARA, for goodness sake. God forbid that you should darken and lengthen your eyelashes with a product that doesn’t have a smidgen of vitamins!
At the other end of the spectrum we have products that really are a nutritional powerhouse, yet receive scant attention for their high quality. Did you ever stop to wonder who ate the first oyster, or the first artichoke — but, more important, how did they gain popularity? I remember my dad telling me that when he was young “everybody knew” tomatoes were poisonous, and that only poor families’ mothers had to bake with whole-wheat flour; rich moms had white flour. Why is it that some products are praised for non-existent or worthless nutrient content while other foods stumble along for years before being accepted? It wasn’t that long ago that you had to sprout your own alfalfa if you wanted sprouts, and lots of folks still haven’t tried tofu.
A good example is a “super” grain that’s made its way out of health-food stores and found its way into mainstream supermarkets, but is still a long way from being considered a “staple” in Canadian households. I’m referring to quinoa (pronounced keen-wah). Its taste, versatility and high nutritional value should make it one of our most popular foodstuffs. What works against it is a relatively (or comparatively) high price, in comparison to other grains with common usage. But when you take its nutritional content into account, it’s a real bargain.
The taste has been compared to that of corn or squash, mellow and grain-like, but distinctive. The dried quinoa seed keeps indefinitely and cooks like rice, but in half the time. Cooking involves simmering in a double volume of water, after which the quinoa expands, becomes nearly transparent and takes on a texture similar to tapioca. In this form it can be eaten as a breakfast porridge, or served as a side dish with meat or fish, as you would serve rice, potatoes or pasta. It can be used in soups and, like rice or tapioca, whipped up into a dessert.
Quinoa is terrific for vegetarians since its amino-acid balance (particularly its lysine content) makes it an excellent main dish with vegetables. It can also be used to stuff poultry, in casseroles or in dishes liked stuffed peppers or zucchini. It’s also a bonus for celiac patients as well since it’s gluten (or more properly gliadin) free. While no single food can provide all human nutritional requirements, quinoa comes pretty close, just after milk.
Like most grains (and technically, it isn’t actually a grain), quinoa contains roughly 100 calories per 28 grams (an ounce). It’s a fairly good source of phosphorus, iron, fibre, vitamin E and several B vitamins. Quinoa is considerably higher in protein and oil and lower in carbohydrate content than other grains, and its oil is primarily unsaturated. The recipe for basic quinoa is on the package, but here’s two recipes that I enjoy making.
500 ml cooked quinoa
125 ml raisins
750 ml milk
125 ml shredded coconut
75 ml honey
125 ml finely chopped almonds
3 eggs, beaten
5 ml cinnamon Pinch of salt
5 ml lemon OR orange zest
15 ml butter
5 ml lemon juice
5 ml vanilla
Combine all ingredients. Pour into a buttered baking dish or individual custard cups. Bake in a 350F oven until set — about 45 minutes. Serve hot or cold, topped with yogurt or cream.
Serves 4 to 6.
CHICKEN AND QUINOA SALAD
4 c. (1 litre) cooked quinoa
50 ml rice vinegar OR lemon juice
125 ml pecan halves Pinch ground pepper
5 ml lemon pepper
250 ml cooked chicken, cubed Lettuce leaves, washed and dried
200 ml raisins plumped in hot water and drained
125 ml thinly sliced green onions
125 ml thinly sliced celery Parsley (optional)
75 ml olive oil
Lightly toss salad ingredients. Chill for one hour. Arrange on lettuce leaves; add a sprinkle of paprika and garnish with parsley, if desired.
Helen Bishop MacDonald is a consulting nutritionist in the agricultural industry.