Rediscovering The Sacred Incan Seed

In the quest for a gluten-free lifestyle, more and more people are searching for alternatives to common cereal grains such as wheat, barley, rye, spelt and kamut, that do not contain the offending protein fractions that aggravate those with gluten sensitivity and gluten intolerance.  In what has become a renaissance of ancient Mayan, Aztec and Incan crops such as amaranth and chia, there has been a particular interest in quinoa as the next major super seed.

Quinoa was cultivated in Peru as early as 5000 B.C.  According to both archaeological and historical evidence it was one of the most widely consumed staples, second to potatoes and preceding even maize (corn) in ancient Andean culture.  Native to Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, this ancient seed is a nutrient-dense, gluten-free alternative to grains. Although referred to as the “Mother of all Grains” according to the Incas, it is technically not classified as a true grain and is often referred to as a pseudo-cereal because it does not belong to the grass family like other grains such as oats and wheat.  A member of the Chenopodium family, it is actually closely related to spinach, beets and the weed known as Lamb’s Quarters.

It is no wonder that quinoa has been so highly esteemed.  This plant is able to thrive in inhospitable environments that pose a difficulty for most other crops.  Not only does it offer incredible nutrition, but it is extremely versatile in its endless culinary applications and uses.  Prior to the Spanish conquest, two thirds of the population in Peru lived in quinoa-growing areas and as such it formed much of the daily diet.  As a staple it was consumed in a variety of dishes ranging from porridges and soups, to simple boiled quinoa with herbs to compressed cakes made from quinoa flour.

Nutritionally speaking its protein content, higher than all other cereals, ranges anywhere from 14 to 22 percent with a balanced proportion of essential amino acids, including lysine and methionine. Along with fiber and iron the seed contains calcium as well as vitamin E and a host of B vitamins.  It also contains higher fat content than other cereals. The leaves of the plant are also edible, containing substantial amounts of vitamin A. 

There is evidence that the Incas intimately understood the seed’s chemistry.  The seed coat contains bitter anti-nutritive compounds that need to be neutralized before consumption either through soaking and rinsing followed by cooking the seed or better still through germination or fermentation.  It is interesting that the Incas would actually utilize quinoa’s saponins for various purposes from making soaps to medicinal preparations. 

A popular Incan beverage made from quinoa is a fermented beer known as Chicha.  Through the fermentation process the seed’s phytic acid, saponins and enzyme inhibitors are neutralized and the nutrition of the seed is radically increased.  Alternatively, sprouting is a means to decrease these compounds and potentialize the nutrition and bio-availability.  The seed coat of quinoa is in fact very thin and so has a rapid ability to germinate when exposed to the correct moisture, light and temperature.  In its sprouted from, quinoa is a highly digestible seed rich in vitamins, minerals, vital enzymes and amino acids.

Sprouted quinoa is incredibly easy to use for it does not require any of the pre-rinsing and lengthy soaking that is needed when the seed is not germinated. The sprouted version cooks rapidly in just 10 minutes.  Its delicate nutty flavour combines well with both savoury and sweet recipes.  It is delicious on its own with a drizzle of some organic olive oil or coconut oil or one can add it to salads, wraps, stir-fries, stews, curries and soups. It also makes a nourishing alternative to oatmeal or cereal in the morning with the addition of sprouted chia powder, goji berries, golden berries and a dash of some vanilla and cinnamon powder. The seed also makes an incredible flour substitute. Pulse the sprouted seeds in a coffee grinder to make fluffy gluten-free flour.  Combine it with sprouted chia powder and you will have the most nutrient rich muffins you have ever made.

It is indeed ironic that when the Spanish descended upon Lake Titicaca and the cultural nexus of Tiahuanaco, they showed little interest in this remarkable seed.  They brought to the New World their own grains of wheat, rye and oats and they took greater interest in the indigenous potato and corn crops. We have come full circle.  With the resurgence of this sacred seed we are just beginning to recapture one of the most treasured staples of this great empire.




Renita Rietz is a health and nutrition writer and speaker who educates on the phytotherapeutic potential of indigenous foods and plants for prevention and regeneration. renitarietz@gmail.com or connect on Facebook


Categories: Supplements, Neutraceuticals, & Herbs