Quinoa – a Complete Protein? That’s Not Exactly the Whole Story…

This post is by Karine Gale, Canada Beef’s Registered Dietitian, and Carmen Kwok, nutrition intern.

girls dinner 4

We seem to be in a quinoa craze.  Or maybe quinoa is making us crazy!  I could hardly believe it when I heard that 2013 is going to be the year of quinoa.  I mean, there’s barely a day that goes by already that I don’t hear what a near perfect food this is.  And so much talk about its protein profile! I wanted to know, could all this hype be true?  

Well, as the RD at Canada Beef – representing one of the most protein-dense foods there is, I wanted to get the facts on all this quinoa rhetoric.  Conveniently, I had Carmen Kwok working with me in November, she’s a nutrition intern from the University of Western Ontario spending a month with me, and so I set her on this task. Here’s what she found!

Quinoa, an ancient Inca grain-like seed, has gained popularity from cookbooks to tables in the last few years. Part of the enthusiasm develops when lots of people refer to quinoa as a complete protein source – technically it is true if you look at its amino acids profile. However, this also creates a halo around quinoa because many people also assume then that quinoa is a good source of protein, which is a shortcoming.

A complete protein source is one that provides all of the essential amino acids. Meat, like beef and poultry, fish, milk, and eggs are examples of complete protein. Now, here’s where the confusion sets in: Quinoa is in fact also a complete protein – this is rare for a plant source. But, while quinoa does have all the essential amino acids, it simply does not have an amount of protein even close to the amounts you would find in sources such as eggs, milk, meat or even legumes. 

To put this protein content into perspective – a food guide serving of cooked quinoa (125 ml) contains ~3 g of protein, where as a serving of boiled lentils contains ~13 g, and a serving of beef contains some 26 g! As you can see, quinoa isn’t exactly protein-rich. Eat Right Ontario also states that meats, legumes, dairy products, and soy contain mostly protein, and grains such as quinoa contain little protein. This is also why quinoa is categorised under the “Grain Products” section of the Canada’s Food Guide, and NOT in the Meat and Alternatives section!

Update October 17th, 2013: check out Registered Dietitian Jennifer Sygo’s article on “Protein Washing”

The bottom line:

  •  Make healthy protein choices to meet your protein needs – Lean trimmed meats, fish, milk, egg, legumes, tofu, and nuts are examples of protein-rich foods. Incorporate them in your diet, space them out at different meals, and pair them with lots of veggies and whole grains.
  •  Choose quinoa as a healthy grain option, not a replacement for a protein choice – quinoa is a tiny grain containing lots of nutrients (just not lots of protein!). It is slightly crunchy and has a mild nutty flavor.  Follow Canada’s Food Guide and consider it as a healthy grain option!

Canadian Beef and Quinoa are a delightful – and healthy – combination!  Try this lovely recipe provided to us by the Dietitians of Canada Cook! cookbook (Robert Rose, 2011).  You can also check out how Heather used quinoa in her Girls Night Dinner Party post.

Perhaps I’ll suggest 2014 be the year of Canadian Beef!  Any supporters?

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Karine is a Registered Dietitian with Canada Beef Inc, passionate foodie and world traveler.  Beef, of course, is a favourite food in her home – providing nourishing and nurturing meals for her hubby, growing 7 year old and the friends and other family they often entertain.  There are not many conversations, either at work or at home, that don’t weave their way back somehow to food, recipes, nutrition, or beef.  “Is “beef” all you talk about at work?”, Karine’s son recently asked.  Karine proudly responded “yes”…

Karine is a Registered Dietitian with Canada Beef Inc, passionate foodie and world traveler. Beef, of course, is a favourite food in her home – providing nourishing and nurturing meals for her hubby, growing 7 year old and the friends and other family they often entertain. There are not many conversations, either at work or at home, that don’t weave their way back somehow to food, recipes, nutrition, or beef. “Is “beef” all you talk about at work?”, Karine’s son recently asked. Karine proudly responded “yes”…

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  1. chilli1327
    chilli1327 says:

    Vegan is a choice and it has it’s problems. A healthy meat diet does not. For someone to say that “people are not meant to eat meat” is ignorant and just plain argumentative. Our bodies do not produce enzymes to break down meat proteins for no reason! The problem with today’s meat is 2 fold: Grains and lack of field exercise and grazing. I will leave out the hype of steroids etc. out for now. But that being said, we need to have healthier meat choices and more humane treatment of our animals. And quinoa has 8 grams of protein per cooked serving, not 3.

    • Joyce
      Joyce says:

      Thank you for your comments back. We did do our fact checking on the quinoa protein content with a registered dietitian and she confirms the 8 grams of protein per serving. Thank you for reaching out to us.

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