Is Quinoa a Grain? 100% Yes, According to Nutritionists
It’s protein-rich, gluten-free, B vitamin-filled, and a whole host of other things, but when it comes to defining what quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) is, things can get a little more complicated.
First domesticated in South America thousands of years ago, the Incans dubbed quinoa the “mother grain” due to its status as a staple crop, but depending on whom you ask today, you might get a different answer.
Long story short: Scientifically quinoa is not a grain, but when it comes to eating and describing this super-nutritious food, you might as well call it such.
Here’s where each camp stands on categorizing quinoa:
Strictly botanically speaking, grains describe caryopses (a.k.a. the dry fruits and seeds) of the grass family scientifically classified as Poaceae. These include what commonly comes to mind when we think of cereal grains: wheat, rice, and corn.
Quinoa isn’t a grass though. It’s actually a flowering plant in the amaranth family (Amaranthaceae) and it’s more closely related to spinach than wheat. The 3- to 9-foot-tall crop grows primarily in South America, and farmers harvest the tiny seeds for consumption.
The Dictionary: Yes
Just like how we call tomatoes, avocadoes, and pumpkins “veggies” even though they’re technically fruits, sometimes it’s easier to define things as we use them rather than to get caught up in specifics.
Enter the word “pseudocereal,” which Encyclopedia Britannica uses to describe the non-grasses that we use like traditional grains.
Hence Merriam-Webster‘s definition of grain: “the seeds or fruits of various food plants including the cereal grasses and in commercial and statutory usage other plants.” While quinoa isn’t a grass, it’s a plant commercially treated as grain. That’s where you’ll find it in the grocery store, after all!
The Whole Grains Council recognizes quinoa’s status as a pseudocereal, but still classifies it as a whole grain due to the similar method of preparation and nutrient profile.
GH Nutrition Director Jaclyn London, MS, RD, CDN, has the same mindset. “Quinoa is a grain rich in protein, fiber, moderate fat, and vitamins and minerals,” she says. “Plus, it’s considered a complete protein, meaning it contains all of the essential amino acids in the necessary amount. This makes it a great choice for vegetarians, vegans, and people trying to eat less meat.”
Paleo Dieters: Yes
If you’re Googling this question because you’re hoping for a workaround way to sneak carby-goodness into your paleo diet, we have some bad news for you. Despite quinoa’s excellent nutritional benefits, it’s not technically paleo, according to the diet’s founder Loren Cordain. The restrictive eating plan cuts out all grains, and unlike botanists, proponents take the same wider definition of “grain” and advise avoiding quinoa entirely.
That said, you don’t need to cut out whole grains to lose weight. “There are tons of reasons to eat 100% whole grains,” London adds. “They’re fiber-full, more sustainable as a protein source than meat, and full of phytonutrients.” She advises following a Mediterranean-style eating plan that still emphasizes whole fruits and vegetables, lean protein, eggs, nuts, seeds, and plant-based oils but also adds back in nutrient-rich legumes, low-fat dairy, and of course 100% whole grains like quinoa.