Definitively, quinoa is a seed, not a cereal or grain. Biologically, it’s closely related to beets and spinach. There seems to be much debate about whether or not quinoa is paleo. This is due, mainly, to it’s pseudo-grain reputation: it’s often referred to as a “whole grain” for commercial sale, though it’s actually a seed, and closer to a fruit than a traditional grain. Adding to the debate is it’s position on the glycemic index. But it is also a complete-protien source, high in fibre, and high in iron, B-vitamins, phosphorus and magnesium. It’s also gluten-free and (when the saponins that coat it naturally are removed) easy to digest.
Curious about all this debate, I recently compared a banana with quinoa on the glycemic index, and here’s what I found ( http://www.glycemicindex.com/index.php ):
Quinoa (cooked): 150g serving size. Glycemic Index: 53. Carbohydrate value: 25. Glycemic Load: 13
Banana (raw): 120g serving size. Glycemic Index: 58. Carbohydrate value: 23. Glycemic Load: 13
Just to clarify, the average banana weighs 120 grams. 150 grams of cooked quinoa is about 2/3 of a cup.
To me, this means quinoa is perfectly paleo, in moderate amounts. I mean, not many people would sit down and eat 5 bananas, nor does it make much culinary sense to sit down and eat 3 and 1/3 cups of straight quinoa (which is roughly equivalent to 5 bananas).
In the end, however, what paleo is, is simple, unprocessed foods that are not grains or processed sugars. Beyond that, what counts as paleo seems to be a matter of interpretation and personal experience and preference. To me, quinoa seems simple and unprocessed enough to be healthful (not to mention all that great complete-protein and iron). This is what it looks like in its natural state, growing in South America:
Lovely, isn’t it? Once the quinoa plant flowers, it forms little fruits about 2 mm in diameter. These are the fruit/seeds that are harvested as quinoa. Once these little gems are harvested, they still have a bitter coating on them called saponin, which has to be removed. The bitter taste prevents the seeds from being completely eaten by birds and wildlife. Usually, unprocessed quinoa is soaked in water for a time and mixed and rinsed well to remove the saponin. Most quinoa you can buy here in North America has been pre-soaked and washed. The package may suggest one further rinse, but often does not even require this.
If you’d like to try quinoa, I suggest buying a boxed variety such as PC Organics Pure Quinoa. It comes from Bolivia, is pre-soaked and washed, and has easy cooking instructions on the box. I will post two recipes for quinoa dishes, and I can say that I have found quinoa easy to digest and quite delicious, though I have always paired it with spices and other additions.