Everything You Need To Know About Quinoa

Nowhere in this article will we be making jokes about the stereotypical difficulty Americans — mostly in commercials — have pronouncing quinoa. That's our promise to you. However, there is still quite a bit people could stand to learn about this tiny, yet power-packed food.

Quinoa (chenopodium quinoa) seemed to enter the culinary lexicon of most Americans somewhere in the early 2000s, though it has been exported to the U.S. since 1984 (via Food First). The internet connected the global community like never before. Knowledge and communication flowed relatively freely. Couple that with a growing realization that staples of the American diet — looking at you bleached flour and refined sugar — do us few favors, and you see why interest was piqued in international foods that add variety and nutritional value in equal measure.

Though you've likely had a bite or three of quinoa, you're probably — like many of us — asking yourself what exactly this multitudinous food is.

Andean superfood

While quinoa is most closely associated with South America, its provenance is uncertain — with plants in both North and South America likely progenitors of today's common varietals (via Notulae Botanicae Horti Agrobotanici Cluj-Napoca). The part of quinoa we eat is the seed of the plant as opposed to a true grain. According to the USDA, it is plentiful with B vitamins and minerals — magnesium, manganese, and phosphorus being the most numerous.

In its raw form, quinoa is a less-than-savory ingredient due to the large amount of bitter saponins in the seed coat, according to the U.S. National Research Council. Additionally, like its amaranth family cousins, quinoa contains a rather high level of oxalic acid, though this is largely found in the leaves and stems (via Food Chemistry).

While quinoa is now cultivated in many parts of the world, including the U.S. since the early 1980s, notes the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, it is still most abundantly grown on the Andean high plain, or Altiplano. Straddling the border of Peru and Bolivia, this region produced over 170 thousand metric tons of quinoa for domestic and international markets in 2020 (via Tridge). The hardy nature of the plant makes it perfectly suited for the wind-swept, high-altitude environment.

Evidence of quinoa cultivation points back as far as 5,000 BCE, notes the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO). By the time of the arrival of Spanish conquistadors, quinoa was a well-developed crop found across cultures throughout the region.

Supporting farmers

Today, quinoa is enjoyed as a hearty and healthful replacement to less-nutritionally balanced starches, such as white rice and pasta. Being fairly easy to prepare with almost boundless variations, it has found a happy home in many American kitchens, with U.S. imports on a steady rise since 2013, according to data from Statista.

The international demand for quinoa, however, has had drawbacks for the farmers who, until a little over a decade ago, barely eked out a living farming the Altiplano for subsistence and meager earnings. The popularity led to a spike in prices and a dizzying influx of cash, as quinoa quadrupled in price, explains NACLA. But, as with any boom, new players entered the market. Larger, more-mechanized farms began to sow quinoa in a race to supply international markets, outpacing many Andean farmers.

In response, the International Labor Organization, FAO, and UNESCO launched a program in 2017 called Andean Grains in some of the most impoverished regions of Peru (via Borgen Project). The approach includes financial and agricultural education, support for cooperatives, and furthering awareness of the values of consuming a portion of the quinoa harvest.

If you're a lover of the flavor and density of nutrients, but worry about the impact your consumption has, Citizen Sustainable offers this advice: shop fair-trade. Though more expensive, it's a small price to pay to ensure that farmers are justly compensated for their hard work and have access to the resources they need to thrive.