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Scientific classification
(unranked):Core eudicots
Species:C. quinoa
Binomial name
Chenopodium quinoa
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Scientific classification
(unranked):Core eudicots
Species:C. quinoa
Binomial name
Chenopodium quinoa

Quinoa (/ˈknwɑː/ or /kɨˈn.ə/, Spanish: quinua, from Quechua: kinwa), a species of goosefoot (Chenopodium), is a grain crop grown primarily for its edible seeds. It is a pseudocereal rather than a true cereal, as it is not a member of the true grass family. As a chenopod, quinoa is closely related to species such as beetroots, spinach and tumbleweeds.

It is high in protein, lacks gluten, and is tolerant of dry soil.


Landscape with Chenopodium quinoa Cachilaya Bolivia Lake Titicaca

Quinoa (the name is derived from the Spanish spelling of the Quechua name kinwa or occasionally "Qin-wah") originated in the Andean region of Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia and Peru, where it was successfully domesticated 3,000 to 4,000 years ago for human consumption, though archaeological evidence shows a non-domesticated association with pastoral herding some 5,200 to 7,000 years ago.[2]

Similar Chenopodium species, such as pitseed goosefoot (Chenopodium berlandieri) and fat hen (Chenopodium album), were grown and domesticated in North America as part of the Eastern Agricultural Complex before maize agriculture became popular.[3] Fat hen, which has a widespread distribution in the Northern Hemisphere, produces edible seeds and greens much like quinoa, but in smaller quantities.

The nutrient composition is favourable compared with common cereals. Quinoa seeds contain essential amino acids like lysine and acceptable quantities of calcium, phosphorus, and iron.[4]

After harvest, the seeds must be processed to remove the coating containing the bitter-tasting saponins. Quinoa seeds are in general cooked the same way as rice and can be used in a wide range of dishes. Quinoa leaves are also eaten as a leaf vegetable, much like amaranth, but the commercial availability of quinoa greens is limited.


Quinoa seeds
Quinoa plant before flowering

Quinoa is a dicotyledonous, annual plant usually about 1–2 metres (3.3–6.6 ft) high. It has broad, generally pubescent, powdery, smooth (rarely) to lobed leaves normally arranged alternately. The woody central stem is either branched or unbranched depending on the variety and may be green, red or purple. The panicles arise either from the top of the plant or from axils on the stem. The panicles have a central axis from which a secondary axis emerges either with flowers (amaranthiform), or bearing a tertiary axis carrying the flowers (glomeruliform).[5] The green hypogynous flowers have a simple perianth and are generally bisexual and self-fertilizing.[5][6] The fruits are about 2 millimetres (0.079 in) in diameter and of various colours—from white to red or black depending on the cultivar.[4]

Natural distribution[edit]

Chenopodium quinoa is believed to have been domesticated in the Peruvian Andes from wild populations of Chenopodium quinoa.[7] There are non-cultivated quinoa plants (Chenopodium quinoa var. melanospermum) which grow in the same area where it is cultivated; it is presumed that those are related to quinoa's wild predecessors, but they could be descendants of cultivated plants.[8]

Saponin content[edit]

Red quinoa, cooked.

In their natural state, quinoa seeds or, collectively, just "quinoa", have a coating of bitter-tasting saponins, making them unpalatable. Most quinoa sold commercially in North America has been processed to remove this coating.[9] This bitterness has beneficial effects during cultivation, as the plant is unpopular with birds and therefore requires minimal protection.[10] Attempts to lower the saponin content of quinoa through selective breeding to produce sweeter, more palatable varieties have proven difficult due to cross pollination contamination.[11]

The toxicity category rating of quinoa saponins treats them as mild eye and respiratory irritants and as a low gastrointestinal irritant.[12] The saponin is a toxic glycoside, a main contributor to its hemolytic effects when combined directly with blood cells. In South America, quinoa saponin has many uses outside of consumption as a food, including as a detergent for clothing and washing and as an antiseptic for skin injuries.[13] High levels of oxalic acid are found in the leaves and stems of all species of the Chenopodium genus, but are also present in the related plant families of Polygonaceae and Amaranthaceae.[14] The risks associated with quinoa are minimal, provided it is properly prepared and the leaves are not eaten to excess.

Nutritional value[edit]

Quinoa, uncooked per 100 g
Nutritional value per 100 g (3.5 oz)
Energy21 kJ (5.0 kcal)
Carbohydrates21 g
- Starch52 g
- Dietary fibre7 g
Fat2 g
- polyunsaturated3.3 g
Protein4 g
- Tryptophan0.167 g
- Threonine0.421 g
- Isoleucine0.504 g
- Leucine0.840 g
- Lysine0.766 g
- Methionine0.309 g
- Cystine0.203 g
- Phenylalanine0.593 g
- Tyrosine0.267 g
- Valine0.594 g
- Arginine1.091 g
- Histidine0.407 g
- Alanine0.588 g
- Aspartic acid1.134 g
- Glutamic acid1.865 g
- Glycine0.694 g
- Proline0.773 g
- Serine0.567 g
Water13 g
Thiamine (vit. B1)0.36 mg (31%)
Riboflavin (vit. B2)0.32 mg (27%)
Vitamin B60.5 mg (38%)
Folate (vit. B9)184 μg (46%)
Calcium36 mg (4%)
Iron4.6 mg (35%)
Magnesium197 mg (55%)
Phosphorus457 mg (65%)
Potassium563 mg (12%)
Zinc3.1 mg (33%)
Percentages are roughly approximated
using US recommendations for adults.
Source: Nutritiondata.self.com Source: USDA Nutrient Database

Quinoa was important to the diet of pre-Columbian Andean civilizations.[15] Quinoa has been called a superfood.[16] Protein content is very high for a cereal/pseudo-cereal (14% by mass), yet not as high as most beans and legumes. Quinoa's protein content per 100 calories is higher than brown rice, potatoes, barley and millet, but is less than wild rice and oats.[17] Nutritional evaluations of quinoa indicate that it is a source of complete protein.[18][19][20] Furthermore, it is a good source of dietary fiber and phosphorus and is high in magnesium and iron. Quinoa is also a source of calcium, and thus is useful for vegans and those who are lactose intolerant.[21] Quinoa is gluten-free and considered easy to digest. Because of all these characteristics, quinoa is being considered a possible crop in NASA's Controlled Ecological Life Support System for long-duration human occupied spaceflights.[22]

Quinoa may be germinated in its raw form to boost its nutritional value, provided that the grains are first rinsed thoroughly to remove any saponin that may be present.[23] Germination activates its natural enzymes and multiplies its vitamin content.[24] In fact, quinoa has a notably short germination period: Only 2–4 hours resting in a glass of clean water is enough to make it sprout and release gases, as opposed to, e.g., 12 hours with wheat.[25] This process, besides its nutritional enhancements, softens the seeds, making them suitable to be added to salads and other cold foods.


Harvested quinoa seeds

Climate requirements[edit]

Quinoa is highly variable due to a high complexity of different subspecies, varieties and landraces (domesticated plants or animals adapted to the environment in which they originated). However, in general it is undemanding and altitude-hardy. It is grown from coastal regions (Chile) to over 4,000 m (13,000 ft) in the Andes near the equator, with most of the cultivars being grown between 2,500 metres (8,200 ft) and 4,000 metres (13,000 ft). Depending on the variety, quinoa's optimal growing conditions are in cool climates with temperatures that range from 25 °F (−4 °C) during the night to near 95 °F (35 °C) during the day. Some cultivars can also withstand lower temperatures without damage. Light frosts normally do not affect the plants at any stage of development, except during flowering. Mid-summer frosts during flowering, often occurring in the Andes, lead to sterilization of the pollen. Rainfall conditions are highly variable between the different cultivars, ranging from 300 to 1,000 millimetres (12 to 39 in) during growing season. Optimal for quinoa growth is well-distributed rainfall during early growth and development and dry conditions during seed maturation and harvesting.[5]

Quinoa has been cultivated in the United States, primarily in the high elevation San Luis Valley (SLV) of Colorado where it was introduced in 1982. The SLV is a high-altitude desert valley where maximum summer temperatures rarely exceed 85 °F (29 °C) with night temperatures of 45 °F (7 °C). Due to its short growing season, North American quinoa cultivation requires short-maturity varieties, typically of Bolivian or Chilean origin.


Quinoa does best in sandy, well-drained soils with a low nutrient content, moderate salinity, and a soil pH of 6 to 8.5.

The seedbed must be well prepared and drained to avoid waterlogging. In the Andes, quinoa seeds normally are broadcast over the land and raked into the soil. Sometimes quinoa is sown in narrow,[clarification needed] shallow soils.

Cultivation management[edit]

Yields are maximised when 150 to 180 lb (68 to 82 kg) N/acre is available.[citation needed] The addition of phosphorus does not improve yield. In eastern North America, it is susceptible to a leaf miner that may reduce crop success; this leaf miner also affects the common weed and close relative Chenopodium album, but C. album is much more resistant.

Harvesting and handling[edit]

Threshing quinoa

Quinoa is usually harvested by hand and rarely by machine, because the extreme variability of the maturity period of native quinoas complicates mechanization. Harvest needs to be precisely timed to avoid high seed losses from shattering, and different panicles on the same plant mature at different times. The seed yield (often around 3 t/ha up to 5 t/ha) is comparable to wheat yields in the Andean areas. In the United States, varieties have been selected for uniformity of maturity and are mechanically harvested using conventional small grain combines. Quinoa is allowed to stand until the grain has reached a moisture content below 10% and plants are dry. Handling involves threshing the seedheads and winnowing the seed to remove the husk. Before storage, the seeds need to be dried in order to avoid germination.[5] Dry seeds can be stored raw until washed or mechanically processed to remove the pericarp to eliminate the bitter layer containing saponins.

History and culture[edit]

Early history[edit]

Quinoa was first domesticated by the Andean peoples around 3,000 to 4,000 years ago.[16] Quinoa has been an important staple in the Andean cultures where the plant is indigenous but relatively obscure in the rest of the world.[15] The Incas, who held the crop to be sacred,[26] referred to quinoa as chisaya mama or "mother of all grains", and it was the Inca emperor who would traditionally sow the first seeds of the season using "golden implements".[26] During the Spanish conquest of South America, the Spanish colonists scorned quinoa as "food for Indians",[27] and even actively suppressed its cultivation, due to its status within indigenous religious ceremonies.[28] In fact, the conquistadores forbade quinoa cultivation for a time[29] and the Incas were forced to grow wheat instead.[30]

Rising popularity and crop value[edit]

World Quinoa Production (thousand metric tons)
Export price[31] USD/Kg$0.080$0.492$0.854$1.254$3.029
Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) [32]

Quinoa has become increasingly popular in the United States, Canada, Europe, China and Japan where the crop is not typically grown, increasing crop value.[33] Between 2006 and early 2013 quinoa crop prices have tripled.[34] In 2011, the average crop value was $3,115 USD per ton with some varieties selling as high as $8,000 per ton.[35] This compares with wheat prices of $9 per bushel (about $340 per ton). Since the 1970s, producers’ associations and cooperatives have worked toward greater producer control of the market. The higher price fetched by quinoa does make it harder for people to purchase, but it also brings livable income for farmers, and is enabling many urban refugees to return to working the land.[36]

The popularity of quinoa in non-indigenous regions has raised concerns over food security. Due to continued widespread poverty in regions where quinoa is produced, and because few other crops are compatible with the soil and climate in these regions, it has been suggested that the inflated price of quinoa disrupts local access to food supplies.[34] In 2013, The Guardian compared quinoa consumption to Peruvian asparagus, a popular Andean crop criticized for excessive water use,[37] as "feeding our apparently insatiable 365-day-a-year hunger for this luxury vegetable[...]"[34] It has also been suggested that, as people rise above a subsistence-level income, they choose higher-status Western processed foods. However, anthropologist Pablo Laguna has noted that farmers tend to save quinoa for personal consumption, and that consumption of the grain in nearby cities has traditionally been lower. According to Laguna, the net benefit of increased revenue for farmers outweighs the costs, saying that it is "very good news for small, indigenous farmers".[38] The transformation of quinoa from a healthy staple food for farming families and communities into a product that is held to be worth too much to keep for oneself and one's family is an ongoing process. As it stands, quinoa is seen as a valuable resource that can bring in far greater amounts[clarification needed] of cheap, low nutrient foods such as pasta and rice. A food which used to be seen as a peasant food that provided farming families with a very important source of nutrition now occupies a spectrum from an everyday food of urban Bolivia's middle class to a luxury food in the Peruvian capital of Lima where "it sells at a higher per pound price than chicken, and four times as much as rice".[39] Efforts are being made in some areas, however, to distribute quinoa more widely and ensure that farming and poorer populations have access to it and have an understanding of the nutritional importance of this food source. Efforts include incorporating quinoa into free school breakfasts and including it in government provisions distributed to pregnant and nursing women in need.[39]

Kosher controversy[edit]

Quinoa has become popular in the Jewish community as a substitute for the leavened grains that are forbidden during the Passover holiday. Several of the kosher certification organizations refuse to certify quinoa as being kosher for Passover, citing reasons including its resemblance to prohibited grains, or fear of cross-contamination of the product from nearby fields of the prohibited grain.[40]

In December 2013, the Orthodox Union, the world’s largest kosher certification agency, announced it would begin certifying quinoa as being kosher for Passover.[41]

International Year of Quinoa[edit]

Logo of International Year of Quinoa 2013
Logo of International Year of Quinoa 2013

The United Nations General Assembly declared 2013 as the "International Year of Quinoa" [42][43][44] in recognition of ancestral practices of the Andean people, who have preserved quinoa as food for present and future generations, through knowledge and practices of living in harmony with nature. The objective is to draw the world’s attention to the role that quinoa plays in providing food security, nutrition and poverty eradication, in support of achieving Millennium Development Goals.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations serves as the Secretariat of the international year. Bolivia has the presidency of the Coordination Committee, while Ecuador, Peru and Chile share the vice presidency, with the rapporteurship in the hands of Argentina and France.


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  44. ^ "International Years". United Nations. Retrieved 9 June 2012. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Data related to Chenopodium quinoa at Wikispecies