Brown rice has long been associated with hippies. Its chewiness and nutty texture are great when the grain is cooked properly, but very much not great when done wrong.
However, brown rice has a new rival for the title of healthiest grain — and it's technically a seed. Quinoa (pronounced like KEEN-wa) has been a staple food in Central America for centuries, and its seeds have been eaten for 6,000 years. Now quinoa has been quickly becoming more popular in Canada and the United States over the past few years. The seeds of the plant are treated as a grain, it's actually a pseudocereal, meaning it's not a grass plant.
Quinoa has quickly become popular for its versatility, its ability to take on the flavours it's cooked with, and its impressive health profile. Impressive enough to replace brown rice in your diet? Let's do a comparison. All of the nutritional information given is based on one cup (185 grams for quinoa, 195 grams for brown rice) of cooked grains.
Calorie Count: Calorie count isn't where you'll find a difference between these two foods — quinoa and rice are virtually dead even here. This assumes, of course, that you haven't added oil or other fats while cooking, which would up the counts.
Fibre: Here we start to see the differences. Brown rice has been promoted over white because it still contains the germ, which houses much of the grain's nutrients and ups it fibre content. A cup of brown rice has 14 per cent of your recommended daily fibre intake. That's impressive, but quinoa does rice even better, with 21 per cent.
Protein: People often don't realize that grains can, in fact, be a source of protein. A cup of brown rice has 5 grams of protein, and when eaten with beans it provides you with a meal that has all the amino acids required for human health. (That's why rice and beans is such a universal dish!) But quinoa not only has more than 50 per cent more protein with 8.1 grams per cup, it's also one of just a few plant sources that's a complete protein, meaning that it contains all of the needed protein-forming amino acids.
Vitamin B1: Both of these foods are important sources of thiamine or vitamin B1, which is needed by the body for nervous system and muscle function and electrolyte balance.
Riboflavin: Riboflavin, previously called vitamin B2, is another of the essential B vitamins. Brown rice doesn't have much, with just 3 per cent of the recommended daily intake, but quinoa provides 12 per cent. Riboflavin helps you produce energy and is an antioxidant that fights harmful free radicals in your body.
Folate: Folate (called folic acid when it's added to foods artificially) is particularly important for women of child-bearing age because of its role in preventing neural tube defects during fetal development. A cup of brown rice contains just a little bit of folate, with 2 per cent of the recommended daily intake, but the same amount of quinoa has 19 per cent.
Iron: Quinoa is a plant-based source of iron, which gives you a way to get this nutrient in your diet while consuming less or no meat; one cup provides 2.8 milligrams of iron or 15 per cent of your recommended daily intake. Brown rice has a little bit of iron as well, with 5 per cent.
Try eating plant-based iron sources with foods containing vitamin C to up your iron intake — just a squeeze of lemon juice on top helps — and avoid consuming them with black teas; the tannins can block iron absorption.
Zinc: Zinc is an essential trace element: we don't need much of it for our health, but we do need it. Eating some quinoa will help you get it, with 13 per cent of your recommended daily amount in each cup. Brown rice is also a source with 8 per cent in the same amount. Zinc is particularly important for the healthy functioning of your immune system.
Vitamin B3: Back to those B vitamins again! Here's a category where brown rice beats quinoa. Brown rice has 15 per cent of your recommended daily amount for niacin or vitamin B3, which is needed for the production of sex and stress hormones, compared to just 4 per cent for quinoa.
Selenium: Brown rice also has more selenium than quinoa, with 27 per cent of the amount you should get each day in a cup compared to 7 percent for quinoa. Selenium, a trace nutrient, is important for heart health and has been researched for its possible role in cancer prevention.
Cooking: The prep for each of these foods is pretty similar: just add the grain (or pseudograin!) and water to a pot and cook. With brown rice, use a ratio of 1 cup of rice to 1.5 cups of water or other liquid. For quinoa, your ratio is 1 cup of quinoa to 2 cups of liquids.
There's one important difference, however. Quinoa has a coating called saponin, which can make the grain taste bitter. Give yours a good rinse in a mesh sieve before cooking, or buy a brand that advertises that the saponin has already been removed in processing.
Verdict: Brown rice is still the best choice for rice in terms of its health benefits, but with its impressive fibre, protein, and iron counts among other benefits, quinoa has it beat.