By Margaret Smith, specialist, AgMRC, Iowa State University.


Quinoa (keen wah), Chenopodium quinoa  Willd,  is a member of the Goosefoot family (Chenopodiaceae), which includes both crop plants; including sugar beets, beets, swiss chard and spinach, and many weedy species. It is considered a psuedocereal, similar to, but is not a cereal grain from the Gramineace family. It is high in protein, moderate in carbohydrates and contains no gluten. This hardy crop tolerates water with elevated levels of salt, high winds, frosts, and drought, which permits its cultivation in high climate risk regions. It is not adapted to areas of high heat during the growing season.

Native to South America, its center of origin and genetic diversity is near Lake Titicaca on the border of Peru and Bolivia. It spread from that center throughout the temperate regions of South America and was cultivated by the Incas before 3000 B.C. The Incas, who revered quinoa as sacred, called it the “mother of all grains”.

Traditionally widely consumed in the highlands of the Andes in South America, quinoa continues to grow in popularity as a health food in North America, Europe, Australia and Japan.


Most quinoa is grown in Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, by total volume, respectively. Production is increasing worldwide, including in Canada, Europe, the highlands of East Africa and the U S. Consumption continues to rise in the U.S. In 2007, the U.S. imported 7.3 million pounds of quinoa. In 2013, nearly 70 million, most of that coming from Peru and Bolivia.

The price of quinoa has increased dramatically, nearly tripling in price between 2006 and 2013 due to high demand by U.S. and European consumers. Prices started to drop in 2015, indicating a better balance of supply and demand,.

Quinoa seeds contain saponin, a toxic glycoside, is a bitter compound, mostly located on the outer coating of seeds, that protects against somewhat insect and bird predation. Various lines contain different amounts of saponin. Saponin is the major anti nutritional compound in quinoa grain, and must be removed before consumption. Seeds can be abraded, brushed, or washed (the traditional method) to remove the saponins. This process adds to the cost of processing and marketing quinoa grain.

Breeding is ongoing to develop saponin-free varieties. Quinoa can now be classified as either ‘sweet’ (saponin free or containing less than 0,11 % saponin), or ‘bitter’, (containing more than 0.11% saponin).Low-saponin quinoa varieties may be more susceptible to bird predation.

Saponins, once removed from quinoa seed, have commercial uses due to their insecticidal, fungicidal properties. Potential uses include pharmaceutical steroids, soaps, detergents, shampoos, cosmetics and synthetic hormones.

Food uses for quinoa grains include: as a side dish, similar to rice; flaked as a breakfast cereal; in snack foods; pastas; in multi-grain infant cereals, and when ground into flour, in baked goods. Because it contains no gluten-forming proteins, bread volumes are reduced when quinoa flour content is over 10% of the total.

Starch grains in quinoa are very small, similar to those in Taro (Colocasia esculenta) starch, It has less amylose (11%) that most commercial starches and can been used for cream substitutes and ‘dusting’ in some candy applications.

Like Swiss chard and spinach, the plant is sometimes grown as a green vegetable, and leaves are eaten fresh or cooked. Plant leaves can also be used for livestock feed.


Quinoa is grown mainly in cool mountainous regions, because air temperatures above 90 to 95 degrees cause sterility of the pollen. Quinoa has been cultivated since the early 1980s in the U.S. and commercially produced since the mid 1980s in the Colorado Rockies, especially in the San Luis Valley. Production research has been conducted in Washington and new York states, Colorado, Utah, Minnesota, North Dakota, Virginia, Maine, and Arizona. Commercial production has also been attempted in California, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington. The biggest barrier to U.S. production is climate.

Quinoa grows three to seven feet high and produces a small, flat, circular-shaped seed. It has been considered "one of the world’s most perfect foods." Compared to other cereal grains, it is higher in protein content (14%-18%) and has a nutritionally attractive amino acid balance. The seed is high in lysine, methionine and cystine, making it complementary to both other grains and to legumes, which are deficient in these nutrients. It also has higher levels of energy, calcium, phosphorus, iron, fiber and B vitamins than barley, oats, rice, corn and wheat. On average, quinoa yields 5.8 percent oil by weight.

Cultivation timing is similar to that for spring wheat or barley. Quinoa is usually grown in rows, but can also be broadcast. Check field research nearest you for recommendations.. Plants do best on sandy-loam to loamy-sand that is well-drained,  with moderate salinity and a pH ranging from 6.0 to 8.5. The crop prefers cool soils at 45 to 50 oF.


Management challenges for quinoa production  in the U.S. include the cool temperature regime under which it must be grown, susceptibility to Downy mildew (Peronospora variabilis), the tendency for preharvest sprouting in the head before harvest with late rains. Some cutivars are also susceptible to damage from Lygus bugs and

Bins for storing quinoa grain require special floors to accommodate the very small seeds

Financial Needs and Analysis

Costs of production for quinoa have been estimated in the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan (link to: http://www1.agric.gov.ab.ca/$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/afu9961/$FILE/quinoa_final_report_june_05.pdf )  and  Alberta. The budget is in Canadian dollars. (See: (link tohttp://www.xe.com/currencyconverter/) for current conversion rate to US dollars.)

Production costs (Canadian dollars) per acre were $175.54 for conventional quinoa and $108.55/A for organic quinoa. Canadians found quinoa, at a yield of 800 lbs/A and priced at $.30/lb, returned more money per acre than canola, but less that wheat. Organic quinoa, at a yield of 400 lbs/A and priced at $0.60/lb, returned 2.5 times that of canola and almost twice what wheat returned per acre.

Canadian researcher also report that the cost of production for quinoa is cheapest in Ecuador, intermediate in Canada and most expensive to produce in the U.S. They did not report cost of production for Bolivia.


Food Companies

  • Keen Ingredients, Denver, Colorado - This business specializes in making products derived from quinoa, such as flour, starch and oil.
  • Quinoa Corporation, Carson, California.
  • Northern Quinoa Corporation, Canada
  • White Mountain Farm - This certified organic family farm located in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado produces and direct markets organic quinoa and potatoes. The farm was the first large-scale quinoa operation in North America.

Seed Suppliers

Other Resources

USDA ARS North Central Regional Plant Introduction Station The national collection of wild accessions and improved varieties of quinoa are maintained at the North Central Regional Plant Introduction Station in Ames, Iowa. The station’s mission is to: ‘expand the genetic diversity of priority plant genetic resource (PGR) collections, to improve associated information and information management tools that facilitate their conservation and utilization in research and crop improvement’.
Individuals interested in breeding and/ or further developing Quinoa may obtain a sample of 200 seeds of any accession from the Chenopodium quinoa  Wild. germplasm curator, David Brenner.