Quinoa protein and it’s nutrition benefits were studied by NASA decades ago for use in space. There is a long list of reasons why its floating around in space at this very moment and may very well be our first “space crop” to be grown on other lunar surfaces. Lets start with why quinoa is so beneficial in the first place.
It isn’t a cereal crop like most people think. Its called a “pseudocereal” mainly because its not a grass like wheat or barley. Its in the same group with buckwheat, chia and amaranth. All of the crops in this group are very rich in nutrients of different levels and don’t contain gluten. Since it can be made into all sorts of products and baked goods (using quinoa flour) its an ideal replacement for those who are gluten intolerant.
Like amaranth, quinoa protein has all of the 9 essential amino acids. It also contains all of the other amino acids beyond the essential ones. This is extremely rare for the plant kingdom. Seaweed and spirulina are the only other two that I know of. For vegans this is very significant since they have a limited source of aminos and for vegetarians its helpful.
Quinoa Protein Content
In only 1/4 dry cup, uncooked (which makes 3/4 cup cooked) there is roughly 6 grams of quinoa protein. That’s higher than wheat, barley, oats, corn, most rice, way more than potatoes and almost as high as soybeans.
Quinoa is especially high in leucine (promotes protein synthesis for muscle growth), lysine (rare for plants), arginine, glycine, glutamic acid and aspartic acid.
Its such a significant source of protein and amino acids, combined with its growing ability, that back in 1993 NASA studied quinoa for the Controlled Ecological Life Support System program. This is the program NASA designed for long term human space missions and for use on orbiting stations. In the report they highlight the great balance of oils, fats, protein and amino acids. Also stating that depending on the variety of quinoa, 15% (on average) dry weight of the crop is protein.
To this day NASA and the European Space Agency use quinoa all the time at the Space Station. There are even videos of astronauts making recipes with quinoa in space. There is one titled “Cooking in Space” and the recipe actually looks really good. Making food in space does seem to a bit of an interesting challenge though with things floating away.
In a situation (like in the movie “The Martian”) it would be more ideal to have quinoa rather than potatoes not just because it would be easier to grow but because quinoa would provide more nutrition and protein. Transporting them in small lightweight packages and still having a lot of nutrition is a huge benefit pointed out by the European Space Agency.
In the event of colonizing a planet, quinoa seems like a very logical plant and seed to take with you. Which is something that may be beneficial in near future missions to Mars. It would be really interesting to see if we can grow quinoa on the moon as a test for the Mars missions.
Quinoa Nutritional Benefits
For vegetarians and vegans there are a few things the diet needs to make up for that we normally get from meat. Iron is one of those really important ones, especially for women. In just 1/4 cup of quinoa (uncooked) it has 12% of your daily value of iron. Sprouted quinoa has 15% and it much easier to make because cooking it is not a requirement. It can be soaked for 30-45 minutes and eaten raw.
In the Alternative Field Crops Manual from University of Wisconsin and Minnesota, quinoa contained more than 4 times the amount of iron found in wheat, corn or barley.
Iron is responsible for transporting oxygen to cells and a number of other critical tasks like hemoglobin production.
Iron from plants is called non-heme iron which basically means its not attached to certain proteins so it not used as well unless vitamin C is present which increases uptake.
Heme iron (from meat) is attached to proteins and the body can make better use of this kind. So for vegetarians and vegans quinoa is a really good source of iron compared to other plant sources.
Much like rice and other plants, the colors are indications of certain vitamins and minerals being present. White quinoa is very common but there are also red and black versions. Which in my opinion, red and black quinoa have a much better, earthy flavor.
With the exception of sodium (which most of us already get enough of) quinoa is exceptionally higher in calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, iron, copper, manganese and zinc than many of it’s other plant counterparts. Buckwheat and barley are the only two “grains” that have higher protein content percentages by dry weight.
Because it has adapted to nearly all climates and there are over 3,000 varieties of quinoa (also in a wide array colors) it can be grown just about anywhere. One of the reasons we still have quinoa to this day is partially due to the varieties that were able to survive high altitudes in the mountains. Due to their ability to adapt they survived, where most of the lowland crops were destroyed by the Conquistadors who outlawed them.
Quinoa has one ability that makes it such a strong crop… it uses very little water. The less water needed to survive increases the likelihood of surviving for any organism. This makes it a very sustainable crop and has been recognized by many world organizations for this reason.
As of the date of this publication, there is a food shortage in Asia revolving around the rice crop and production of it. If more people in Asia adopted quinoa as a replacement for rice, that may be a great solution to the current problem. Rice is a crop that requires a lot of water to grow. Where quinoa requires very little and can grow anywhere.
It seems like a good solution for the sustainability problems Asia encounters with food production as well. Sushi made with quinoa instead of rice looks really good and tastes delicious. That might be a shift we see in the near future.
So it has the ability to deliver more nutrients and vitamins than most other crops, naturally does not contain gluten and requires less water to grow. Quinoa is a near perfect crop by those standards and its tastes good.
It only takes fifteen minutes to make and there are no limitations to the amount of quinoa recipes that can be made.