Five things everyone should know about . . . Quinoa

  1. This “supergrain” is not a grain. Quinoa (KEEN-wah) is not even in the grass family, unlike such grains as wheat, rye, oat and corn. As a member of the family Chenopodiaceae, the Andean plant’s closest relatives include beets and spinach. When prepared for eating, however, its seeds pass as a grain substitute to such an extent that quinoa is known as a pseudocereal. Quinoa may have been domesticated before the grasses and likely is one of humankind’s first seed domesticates in the Americas.
  2. It is super-nutritious. Quinoa has 10 essential amino acids, is very high in protein (up to 18 percent, compared with 10-12 percent for most grains) and is loaded with minerals including iron and magnesium. It is gluten-free and so nutritious that NASA researchers deem it an ideal food for long-term space missions. Quinoa seeds naturally contain saponins, which must be removed after harvest and prior to consumption. Saponins have an anti-nutritional effect on humans but provide bird-resistance to the plant, which allows it to be cultivated widely throughout the Andes. Most commercial quinoa available in North America has had its saponins removed prior to sale, rendering the seeds palatable and healthy.
  3. It was sacred to the ancient Incas. They called quinoa the “mother grain,” and each year the emperor would sow the first seeds using a golden ceremonial spade, historians say. The Incas cultivated quinoa at very high altitudes in the Andes, and some of the best quality quinoa today still comes from those high elevations. The Spanish called this crop arroz pequeño (little rice), but they favored other crops such as barley and oats above quinoa. Spanish colonists later dismissed quinoa as “food for Indians” and, because it was held sacred in non-Christian ceremony, for a time even banned it and forced the Incas to instead grow such European crops as wheat.
  4. Popularity brings problems. The new demand has been a boon for growers in Peru and Bolivia, who have seen prices for quinoa nearly triple over the past five years—but now fewer native consumers can afford it.
  5. Quinoa’s big moment is fast approaching. The United Nations recognizes 2013 as the International Year of Quinoa, an observance intended to promote its benefits and potential use. The crop is very tolerant to stress and can be grown in marginal environments, providing hope that quinoa can be used in the developing world to improve human nutrition and economic conditions.

Irwin Goldman is a professor and chair of the CALS’ Department of Horticulture. He is the nation’s only publicly supported beet-breeder.