Grains have been a staple of the human diet for thousands of years (1). While they can simply be used as an ingredient to create other foods like breads and pastries, grains are also an important component of many meals.
With the increasing availability of non-traditional grains like quinoa, many health-conscious individuals are starting to re-evaluate what they eat. White rice also has qualities that helps it stand out as a good addition in your kitchen pantry, but understanding more about each of these grains can help you make a decision as to which is the best fit.
Quinoa is referred to as an “ancient grain” because it has remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years. It was first domesticated 3,000 to 4,000 years ago in the Andes Mountains of Peru, Columbia, Chile, and other neighboring locations. The Incas once called quinoa “chisoya mama,” which translates to “mother of all grains,” and it’s been a staple crop in the culture ever since.
There are a few different types of quinoa, generally differentiated by their colors—red, black, and white. It’s actually a seed that’s cooked in much the same way as rice.
In its rawest form, quinoa is coated in a plant compound called saponin, which naturally develops as a defense mechanism to discourage birds from eating the seed. This substance can impart a bitter, soapy flavor to the grain, and upset sensitive stomachs, so it’s important to rinse the quinoa before cooking—especially if you buy it in raw or bulk form. Pre-boxed quinoa may be pre-rinsed, but you should also run under the faucet at home to ensure you get the best taste once cooked.
The flavor of quinoa is similar to couscous in that it’s very delicate and slightly nutty. It’s been compared to a cross between oatmeal and brown rice in texture and taste, though it can be easily flavored and seasoned to fit well into almost any recipe or as a side dish.
Quinoa is cooked much like rice. Always check your box for specific instructions, but if buying in bulk, the standard guidelines call for every one cup of rinsed quinoa to be combined with two cups of water and then brought to a boil. Once boiling, cover the pot with a lid and reduce heat to low. Let simmer for roughly 15 minutes. Once all the water is absorbed, it’s ready to go. Fluff with a fork and then add a small amount of butter to flavor and eat on its own or let cool and use for desserts, breakfast bars, and salad toppings.
The first and most obvious benefit of eating quinoa is simply its versatility and ability to take on a prominent role in so many recipes. It’s also a gluten-free grain that is able to be consumed by those with Celiac disease or gluten sensitivities. But the nutritional impact that quinoa provides is where it truly shines—it’s a good source of a large number of nutrients that the body needs to function. In particular, quinoa is packed with essential amino acids including many that the body can’t create on its own but must have to thrive. Additional nutritive value comes from:
When obtained regularly in the human diet, these vitamins and minerals can help reduce the risk of illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure. Quinoa is such a healthful crop that NASA uses it in long-duration space flights to provide substance for astronauts.
The drawbacks of using quinoa are few, though there are a couple of characteristics worth noting. First is the fact that some people have developed digestive issues when eating this grain. Because there’s so much fiber in quinoa, those with sensitive stomachs or those not used to eating so much fiber can experience bloating, diarrhea, or general discomfort. Another theory is that the saponin can trigger gut issues, which is why it’s always important to rinse the grain before cooking and eating it (3).
Quinoa also tends to be more expensive than some other grain options like rice.
Lastly, boxed and flavored versions may contain numerous additives and preservatives so be sure to check the label before purchasing.
Despite this, if you buy raw, organic quinoa and use it properly, it can become an important part of your daily nutrition. Sprouted quinoa is an even better choice since it keeps more the nutrients intact through the sprouting process, which allows the seeds to germinate.
Rice is one of the oldest grains and, today, provides roughly half of the world’s population with a good portion of their daily caloric intake. White rice became a thing of nobility in 17th and 18th century Japan while brown rice was considered food for the poor (5). However, white rice is essentially brown rice that has been “polished,” meaning it has been milled and had the husk and germ removed. This process ends up altering the flavor and texture, but also helps remove some of the risk of spoilage.
White rice is often enriched throughout the world in order to replace some of the nutrients lost in the milling process; in the U.S., it’s required by law that all white rice be enriched with B1 and B3 vitamins and iron (6).
White rice has very little taste, and the texture of it varies greatly depending on how long it was boiled—the longer it was cooked, the softer and more sticky it will be. Though the taste is mild, it allows rice to find its way into a huge number of recipes, one of the key reasons it has become such a strong component in cooking around the world. White rice can itself be a side dish, or used in any number of ethnic dishes, from sushi to stir-fry, or Latin-style rice and beans.
While you can also buy white rice in bulk, there are also instant varieties, which take less preparation but are also heavily processed.
To cook white rice, first rinse the grains to remove any extra starch that could make it too chewy and sticky, and then carefully measure out a suitable amount of water. The ratio is generally 1-¼ cup of water to every 1 cup of rice (but always check the package first). If you put too much water in, you’ll have a very runny dish. Bring the water to a boil and then add in the grains and let it cook according to the time suggested on the box (usually 10-15 minutes). Be sure not to stir while cooking as this could activate the starches. Once done, fluff and serve.
The biggest advantage of white rice is its ease of use. Cooking it takes little time or effort, and it’s a fast way to create a tasty side dish. It also fits into a number of different recipes, making it one of the most versatile ingredients you can keep in your kitchen. There are also some health benefits:
White rice is also quite inexpensive and readily available almost anywhere in the country, from corner stores to grocery stores. As well, it has the ability to keep well for long periods of time, which makes it even more cost effective.
One of the more significant drawbacks to using white rice for a meal is that is has fewer essential nutrients, vitamins, and minerals—even enriched white rice has less of what the body needs than other grain types like quinoa. And, white rice has roughly 15 times the carbohydrates and 40 more calories than quinoa does.
Although it’s a staple grain, in order to get the most from it you’ll need to combine white rice with vegetables and protein to ensure a balanced diet. This means that more attention has to be paid to planning out well-balanced meals.
Choosing between these two grains really comes down to just two things:
Your health: If you’re looking for a food that provides essential nutrients, amino acids, and vitamins, quinoa is the better choice. The nutrition and health benefits it provides are far more profound than what you could receive from white rice.
The dish: Preference should also be considered. Certain meals simply work better with white rice than quinoa. Though that doesn’t mean you can’t switch back and forth and enjoy the best of both grains.
Photo credit: Alicia Cho
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