Until about ten years ago I had never even heard of quinoa but it has now become a regular part of my diet. It’s popularity has skyrocketed in the west.
Quinoa is usually referred to as a grain and is often eaten in the place of rice. It is not actually a grain, however, but rather is the seed of a plant called chenopodium quinoa, which is a plant native to Peru and looks like this:
The chenopodium quinoa plant is a relative of beets, chard and spinach. From NPR: “The plant resembles spinach, but with 3- to 9-foot stalks that take on a magenta hue. The large seed heads make up nearly half the plant and vary in color: red, purple, pink and yellow.” Quinoa means “mother grain” in the Incan language and has been a staple for the native people of Peru, Boliva and Chile for thousands of years. It is a hearty plant, can be grown at high altitudes and is drought-resistant.
Quinoa is high in protein with a protein content of 14-18% (as compared to rice at 8%) and it is also a “complete protein” meaning that it supplies all the essential amino acids. It is also very high in fiber. Because it is actually a seed rather than a grain, it is gluten-free.
Given it’s health benefits, it is often classified as a superfood. From LiveScience: “A 2017 study in the Journal of Nutraceuticals and Food Science determined that compared to other cereals, which people around the world rely upon for macronutrients, quinoa has more protein and a greater balance of essential amino acids. Nutritionally, it resembles milk protein more than cereals like wheat, corn and barley. It also surpasses cereals in amounts of dietary fiber, lipids, calcium, iron, zinc, phosphorus and vitamins B1, B2, B6, C and E.” Quinoa has also been found to have anti-inflammatory benefits due to containing omega-3 fatty acids and also promotes a healthy gut microbiome.
Quinoa has been found to benefit heart health. It’s high fiber content and omega-3s help lower cholesterol and it’s dietary flavonoids are linked to a reduction in heart disease.
Production of Quinoa has soared over the past 20 years. In 1980 only eight countries grew quinoa. That number increased to 40 in 2010 and now over 70 countries grow quinoa and the acreage dedicated to quinoa is expanding. From 2011 to 2015 the price of quinoa jumped over 200% and the value of quinoa exported from Peru tripled between 2012 and 2017. A few interesting things that helped lead to quinoa’s popularity:
(1) in 1993 NASA declared that quinoa was good to consume in space and specifically stated “While no single food can supply all the essential life-sustaining nutrients,” researchers concluded, “quinoa comes as close as any other in the plant or animal kingdom.”
(2) Oprah featured quinoa as part of her health-food cleanse diet in 2008.
(3) The gluten-free craze of the past 5-10 years has helped quinoa’s popularity because it is a good grain substitute.