Jump on the gluten-free quinoa band wagon

March is quinoa month which makes this the perfect time to reveal that I am a quinoa convert.

Several years ago, Gluten-Free Living started promoting a gluten-free diet that not only excludes wheat, barley and rye but includes healthy alternatives, like gluten-free whole grains.

Quinoa, a grain so tiny it pours through your fingers like sand, is one of them. It’s ground into flour and used to make pasta, but you can prepare the whole grain as a side dish like rice or as a hot breakfast cereal.

I had been writing about and promoting the nutritional value of quinoa, which is packed with more protein than any other grain and is high in iron, calcium, B vitamins and fiber. The only problem was I was not serving it to my family, which includes my daughter who has celiac disease.

I was put off by descriptions that said it had a bitter outer coating, called saponin, which repels birds and insects when it is growing in the field. It seemed like a lot of time and trouble to remove the saponin by soaking the quinoa for several hours and then washing it off. I also suspected it probably did not taste very good, and I was sure it would not be as easy to make as the brown rice I had finally got my family to accept.

And I had an odd history with this ancient grain.

When my daughter was a toddler and newly diagnosed and I knew pretty much nothing about what was and wasn’t gluten free, quinoa was not accepted as safe by the celiac group I belonged to. I can’t remember the reason why and it seems so ludicrous now I don’t even want to try to find out.

But I remember my mother-in-law bringing a box of quinoa pasta to our house in those early, uncertain days. It was clearly labeled gluten free. But I had just received a celiac support group newsletter that questioned its use on the gluten-free diet. At that time I had no confidence in my ability to figure out was gluten free on my own, so I shoved the pasta to the back of the cabinet and forgot about it until years later when I found it covered with dust.

What a shame I struggled for so long to prepare edible white rice pasta that is nearly devoid of nutrients instead of the healthy quinoa I had stashed out of sight. (Thankfully, I did switch to brown rice pasta once I learned it was healthier, tastier and easier to make than white.)

But even with brown rice pasta on my daughter’s plate, quinoa nagged me.

One day in the new health food section of my local supermarket I spied a carton of whole grain quinoa on the shelf. Lo and behold the directions said nothing about soaking and washing those tiny grains. So there went my biggest excuse for avoiding it. I’ve since learned that most quinoa sold in the US already has the saponins removed and at most you have to run it quickly under cold water in a strainer with very tiny holes.

When I opened the box at home, the smell was a little strong and earthy. But I was determined to at least give it a try. Really, it was as easy to prepare as rice. I just boiled some water, poured in the quinoa and let it simmer for about 12 minutes.

When it was done it tasted a little bland to me, so I mixed in some garlic and red onion I had chopped up in a device like the Slap Chop you see hawked on TV. (Mine is from Martha Stewart and is a very sophisticated Tiffany-like blue so I assume it’s better!) I didn’t even saute the onion and garlic. I added a little lemon juice, a little olive oil and a spice I had on hand.

Everyone in my family, from my picky 15-year-old son to my health conscious daughter, is now a quinoa convert like me.

And we are spreading the word. I take quinoa made this way to parties when I’m asked to bring a side dish and every last bite is always gone. Some people mistake it for couscous (which is not gluten free) but foodies who pride themselves on trying new things usually recognize its interesting nutty taste and aroma.

Either way, I don’t care as long as they join me on the quinoa band wagon.

Now it’s you turn to jump aboard! And hurry. Quinoa month is almost over.

Here’s to a healthy gluten-free diet

A few years ago at Gluten-Free Living we started focusing on the lack of vitamins and minerals in gluten-free products.

We launched a series of articles, called Neglected Nutrition, which covered topics like whole grains, enriched foods, fat content, vegetarian and gluten-free diets and healthy eating for kids. (You can order back issues with these stories at Gluten-Free Living)

As more gluten-free products became available, we wanted our readers to know the nutrition facts so they could choose food that was gluten-free and healthy.

So I’m happy others are paying more attention to the important issue of healthy eating and the gluten-free diet. I found evidence of that trend everywhere from the Digestive Disease Week medical conference, to a Harvard Medical School health publication to the Institute of Food Technologists convention.

At Digestive Disease week, researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center presented findings of a nutrition study of about 100 men and women with celiac disease that showed most were not getting the daily recommend amounts of calcium, fiber and iron.

The study concluded it would be “sensible” to recommend a daily multi-vitamin for those who follow the gluten-free diet. (We’ll have more on daily vitamins and the gluten-free diet in an upcoming issue of Gluten-Free Living.)

Food diaries kept by study participants showed they ate few healthy, gluten-free whole grains and that most of their foods were made from rice, potato and corn.

Meanwhile, in a recent article in the Harvard Health Letter Melinda Dennis, nutrition coordinator at the Celiac Center at Beth Israel, said gluten-free food made from rice, potato and corn starch lacks important vitamins and fiber. Dennis said gluten-free food makers have learned that adding xanthan and guar gums improves taste and texture of gluten-free foods made from nutrient-lacking starches. But these gums don’t add any nutritional value.

So you end up with gluten-free food that tastes good, but is not really good for you.

Those who follow the gluten-free diet should eat “unconventional but nutritionally well-rounded substitutes,” Dennis said. She calls them the super six – amaranth, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, sorghum and teff.

Many specialty gluten-free companies sell baking mixes made with the one or more of the super six flours directly to consumers for home baking. But many ready made gluten-free products still rely on the trio of nutritionally weaker starches.

We might start to see that change.

At the recent food technologists conference, Conagra Mills announced the development of gluten-free, all-purpose multi grain flour that the company says is both healthy and works well in gluten-free products. It contains a proprietary blend of whole grains, plus tapioca starch. Conagra has previously sold amaranth, quinoa, millet and teff as individual flours, but the company said the blend will improve the quality of gluten-free products. The blend can be used to make bread, tortillas, muffins, snacks, coatings and cereals, according to Conagra.

If these flours catch on and if we start paying attention to all the advice to eat whole grains, as well as naturally gluten-free fruits and vegetables, nutrition for those who are gluten free won’t be quite as neglected.