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By Marsha Laux, content specialist, AgMRC, Iowa State University.

Revised by Mykel Taylor, Assistant Professor, Kansas State University, June 2012.


Quinoa (keen wah), an ancient food, is a member of the Goosefoot family, which includes such plants as sugar beets and spinach. A native of South America, it was cultivated by the Incas prior to 3000 B.C. The Incas, who revered quinoa as sacred, called it the "mother grain." Quinoa is growing in popularity as a health food in the United States and Europe.

Quinoa is not a grain but a seed, and it is ground into flour for food use and substituted for grains, especially by those with gluten sensitivity. A pseudocereal, quinoa (like amaranth and buckwheat) is actually a broadleaf plant rather than a grass and is a close relative of lamb’s quarter.


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 and commercially produced since the mid 1980s in the Colorado Rockies, especially in the San Luis Valley. Production has also been attempted in California, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington. The biggest barrier to U.S. production is climate.

As a plant, 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.

The seeds have a bitter saponin in the outer coat that must be removed before consumption. They can be washed or milled to remove the seed coat, adding to the total cost of the final product. On average, quinoa yields 5.8 percent oil by weight.

Value-added Uses

Quinoa is made into flour for baked goods, breakfast cereals, beer, soups, pastas, desserts and even livestock feed. The seeds can be boiled, added to soups or even fermented. The cooked seeds have a nutlike flavor and remain separate, fluffy and chewy. Quinoa breads and flours are popular products for their gluten-free, high-protein qualities. Quinoa seeds and flour can be found in the health food section of many grocery stores, on menus at gourmet restaurants, and marketed directly to consumers over the Internet.

Like spinach, the plant is sometimes grown as a green vegetable, and leaves are eaten fresh or cooked. The leafy plant materials can be used in human consumption or for livestock feed.


Most quinoa consumed in the United States is imported from South America. Current estimates of U.S. production are minimal, at less than 10,000 pounds. According to the Food & Agriculture Organization, world production of quinoa in 2010 was 71,419 metric tons (MT) on 86,203 hectares. Peru produced 41,079 MT in 2010 on 35,313 hectares followed by Bolivia with 29,500 MT. The price of quinoa has increased dramatically over the past 10 years due to high demand by U.S. and European consumers.


Profile created May 2004 and updated June 2012. Links checked November 2013.


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