We’re hearing more and more about the miracle “grain” quinoa—mostly as a tasty super-food, but also, increasingly, as an ingredient in hair care products. Let’s learn more about this high-protein food, which though commonly referred to as a grain, is technically not a grain.

Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa Willd.”>, pronounced KEEN-WAH, is also called Quinua, meaning “mother grain,” in Inca language. Other names for Quinoa include vegetable caviar and Inca Rice. While it may seem new to many readers, it was a staple in the Inca diet and is still enjoyed regularly by the Quechua and Aymara people, who are their descendents. Quinoa has been consumed consistently over the past 5,000 years by people who inhabit the mountainous and valley regions of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Chile. The indigenous people that have enjoyed Quinoa believe it enriches and oxygenates the blood.

Growth and Habit

Quinoa is an annual herb. It is related to the useful weed lambs-quarters (Chenopodium album L.”> and it is a relative of several types of beets and spinach. Quinoa plants have a wide range of heights, ranging from 1½ to 6½ feet and come in an array of colors that include white, pink, purple, dark red, yellow and black. Its leaves resemble a goose foot. The seed comes in large clusters on a panicle resembling sorghum—about the size of millet. The seed has two flat surfaces and a rounded side similar to an aspirin. The seeds range in color from black, to red and pink, white and yellow. Quinoa is a hardy, drought-resistant plant that grows well with little rainfall and at high altitudes.

Quinoa tends to grow in South America in areas that are drought-prone, with hardly any fertility. The plants can tolerate light frost but should not be exposed to temperatures below 28 degrees Fahrenheit. The plant’s seed is similar to sorghum at maturity.

Quinoa’s Nutrition-Packed Punch

Quinoa has recently burst onto the health scene and it is viewed as a super-food and a super crop. While treated like a grain in American cooking, Quinoa is a broadleaf non-legume and sometimes referred to as a pseudocereal. The protein in Quinoa is extremely high quality and much denser in protein than true cereals, which stem from grassy plants. Comparable to buckwheat and amaranth, Quinoa is higher in lysine (which promotes hair growth”> than wheat. The amino acids quinoa seeds contain are balanced in a way that is very complementary to animal and human nutrition. Quinoa is also lower in sodium and higher in calcium, iron, copper, zinc, manganese, potassium, phosphorous and magnesium than barley, corn or wheat. Minerals and amino acids have been proven to aid in the conditioning of hair and skin. Besides yielding a grain-like substance served like rice, Quinoa is also useful in the making of flour. Quinoa flour is used as a starch extender in combination with corn meal, grains and wheat flour, in the making of baked goods and processed foods. This useful plant is also used for cereal, different types of soups, and alcohol.

Quinoa for Your Hair

Quinoa offers accessible vegetable protein to gently cleanse and nourish your hair. Its amino acids help repair damage to the hair shaft while its proteins coat, strengthen and protect the hair. Packed with vitamins and minerals as well as amino acids, Quinoa can aid in hair growth while preventing breakage. Many new shampoos and conditioners are utilizing this beneficial herb. Look for hydrolized quinoa protein. This type of formulation is believed to form a protective barrier over the hair shaft, while it encourages sheen. Its humectants attract moisture from the air, while generally conditioning your hair, yielding a well-defined curl pattern and a sexy head of hair.

Nexxus recently launched a new product line—Phyto Organics ChromaLife Colour Retention System—that relies on quinoa’s amazing benefits. PhytoSpecific’s Moisturizing Styling Balm also contains quinoa oil. And Aveda’s Damage Remedy Daily Hair Repair contains quinoa protein, too.

It sounds like an ingredient definitely worth looking for!

Stephanie Rose Bird is a practicing herbalist. She is the author of five books including, “The Big Book of Soul: the Ultimate Guide to the African American Spirit: Legend & Lore, Music & Mysticism, Recipes & Rituals,” published by Hampton Roads Publishers. She is also the author of the recently published, “A Healing Grove: Recipes and Rituals for Body and Spirit,” published by Lawrence Hill Books. Her website is at StephanieRoseBird.com.

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