quinoa field

What is QUINOA?

The mother of all grains to the Incas, today a superfood that can help feed the world. Quinoa — “keenwah” — is a broadleaf plant species (chenopodium quinoa) genetically close to sugarbeet and spinach, functionally raised as a grain crop and so sometimes termed a pseudo-cereal. There are thousands of varieties of quinoa, most of them wild. Most valuable are the heirloom strains nurtured by Bolivian farmers to thrive in saline soils at at high altitude, resisting drought, frost and saline soils to provide the unrivaled goodness of Royal Quinoa.

Quinoa has been growing naturally amid the severe landscape of Bolivia’s altiplano for thousands of years. The plants grow from tiny seeds to as much as six feet in about a hundred days, protected from pests by an outer coating of bitter-tasting saponin and maturing in shades of green, gold and red. Llamas provide natural fertilizer, and half a pound of planted seeds can yield up to 2,000 pounds of new seed per acre at harvest.

The farmers sow, reap and thresh their quinoa by hand before it is traded in local markets, trucked to processing facilities, cleaned to remove the saponin and field debris then shipped to global customers including major food companies and individual consumers. 

Harvested quinoa seeds come in a variety of colors, of which three are widely available in retail outlets. White (golden) quinoa, the most commonly found, offers the mildest taste, smoothest texture and shortest cooking time. Red seeds add vibrant color and nutty taste to cold dishes and salads. Black quinoa is favored for its earthy sweetness and crunchy texture. Quinoa is versatile: it is ground into flour for use in flatbreads, pasta and many more baking applications, and it can be found in alcoholic beverages, shampoo and cosmetics. Quinoa leaves can be eaten and taste much like spinach, although typically they are not exported. 

Quinoa is nutritionally richer than wheat, barley and other “true grains.” It is a rare, plant-based source of complete protein, boasting all nine essential amino acids. It’s high in fiber, rich in important minerals, totally gluten-free. 

hand holding quinoa
quinoa farming history illustration

QUINOA History

Four thousand years ago, Babylonian mathematicians were figuring out fractions and farmers in Pakistan started raising cotton. Meanwhile high in the Andes mountains, the Aymara and Quechua peoples had begun to domesticate the hardy native plant known as Kinwa in the Quechua language.

For ages to follow, quinoa nourished the Andean way of life. The protein-rich seeds were ground into flour for baking or boiled in stews. In the extreme Altiplano climate, where other crops routinely failed, successive cultures trusted quinoa to fuel their families and their fighting men. 

The Incas revered quinoa; from the 1530s, the Spanish burned it, banned it and dictated wheat as its unsuitable replacement. Within decades quinoa had withdrawn to its remote highland roots and centuries of global obscurity. Isolation had its benefits: ancient seeds flourished free from contaminants, and farmers developed their tools and techniques for working with Nature, simple, effective, organic and sustainable.

Fast-forward to the 1980s, when food scientists identified the nutritional richness of quinoa just as healthy eating was emerging as a mega-trend among consumers in developed countries. Bolivian quinoa planting doubled in a few years, and organic-food pioneers began building a supply chain to the US market.  

By 2007, the US was importing 3,300 metric tons of quinoa per year; by 2013, business had boomed to 36,000 metric tons, with quinoa on supermarket shelves nationwide. In Bolivia, tractors and irrigation systems started to appear in the fields and as farm incomes soared, electricity, sanitation and education reached even the remotest communities.

Worldwide interest and demand for quinoa followed a parallel growth curve, and the United Nations declared 2013 as the International Year of Quinoa. As other countries aggressively seek to harness the magic of the Mother Grain of the Andes, a critical new chapter in the history of quinoa is currently being written.

woman with shovel