Quinoa (pronounced “keen wah”) is a member of the Goosefoot family (Chenopodiaceae) which includes crop plants such as sugar beets, Swiss chard, and spinach along with many weed species. Rather than being a cereal from the Gramineace family, it is a pseudocereal, high in protein, moderate in carbohydrates, and contains no gluten. Quinoa can tolerate water with elevated levels of salt, high winds, frosts, and droughts, which allows it to be cultivated in high-risk climate regions. However, it is not adapted to areas of high heat during the growing season.
It is native to the Andean region of South America and served as one of the main foods for the Andean. From there, it spread throughout the temperate regions of South America and was cultivated by the Incas before 3000 B.C. They considered quinoa to be sacred, as the “mother of all grains.”
Currently, quinoa cultivation occurs in more than 50 countries, including France, England, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, and Italy. Quinoa is also being developed successfully in Kenya, India, and the United States, and it continues to grow in popularity as a health food in North America, Europe, Australia, and Japan.
Due to quinoa’s adaptability to different environments as well as its dietary benefits, it has the potential to lessen dependence on staples such as wheat and rice. It can also have benefits for the local environment. Because of these properties, quinoa can potentially be grown in food deserts or places that suffer from food insecurity.
Quinoa is undemanding and altitude hardy, easily cultivated in the Andes up to around 4,000 meters. However, quinoa is susceptible to a leaf miner in eastern North America, which can reduce crop success.
Since the early 1980s, quinoa has been cultivated and commercially produced in the Colorado Rockies, especially in the San Luis Valley. Production research has been conducted in Washington, New York, Colorado, Utah, Minnesota, North Dakota, Virginia, Maine, and Arizona, while commercial production has been attempted in California, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. Currently, the biggest barrier to U.S. quinoa production is climate.
Quinoa optimally grows where temperatures fall below 90 degrees Fahrenheit, since the pollen goes sterile at higher temperatures. It is a warm season crop that requires full sun and germinates best in soil temperature ranges of 65 to 75 degrees. Because of this, quinoa grown in southern Canada or the northern United States is best planted from late April to early June. Most likely, the soil will be moist enough for germination until early June, in which case the plants do not need to be watered until the two leaf stage.
Seedlings generally emerge within four days when soil temperatures are around 60 degrees, but may not germinate if night time temperatures rise too far above that. To compensate for that, seeds can be refrigerated before planting. Quinoa is drought tolerant and will do well on 10 inches of water or less. It will also resist light frosts, especially when the soil is dry.
Quinoa, much like amaranth, prefers sandy loam that is well drained. It prefers moderate salinity, with a pH ranging from 6.0 to 8.5. The seeds should be sown a quarter inch deep, in rows that are 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 feet apart, or enough to allow a rototiller through without damaging the plants. Planting can be done either by hand or with a row seeder, and the crop should eventually be thinned to 6 to 18 inches apart. While quinoa is usually grown in rows, it can also be broadcast. To determine which method is best, check the nearest field research for recommendations.
When the plant approaches a foot in height, it will grow more rapidly and close in its canopy, allowing it to shade out weeds and reduce evaporation based moisture loss. Weeding can likewise be discouraged through cultivation or mulching.
Because quinoa can cross with its wild relatives, it is important to weed out red-rooted pigweed and lamb’s quarters in order to maintain a pure seed. Amaranth cultivars and different quinoa cultivars will cross over, so each separate cultivar should be grown with as much distance between them as possible
At full maturity, quinoa will be 3 to 7 feet high, with small, flat, circular seeds.
Quinoa is ready for harvest when the leaves have fallen and only the dried seed heads remain. Seeds can be simply stripped upwards off of the stalk with a gloved hand. In the case of frost, a seed past the green stage will probably not be damaged, and harvesting can happen a day or two later. However, extremely hot weather and warm nights can prevent fruit set. Near germination, the weather needs to be watched, since rain can cause the dry seeds to germinate. If the heads are not completely dry, they can be harvested when the seed can barely be indented with a fingernail. These seeds should be thoroughly dried before storage.
Quinoa should be cleaned with screens, by winnowing, with a fan, or with other blowing devices. It is important to dry the crop, which can be done with trays in the hot sun or near an indoor heat source so that it doesn’t mold in storage. The seeds should be stirred occasionally until as dry as possible, then they can be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry place.
Quinoa grains have a bitter saponin coating that deters birds and insects from eating them and that needs to be removed before consumption. This can either be accomplished by polishing – which removes the saponin coat but also refines it like white rice, white flour, or pearled barley – or washed in a three-step process that cleans the saponin without removing vital nutrients. Polished quinoa has half the fiber of washed quinoa, along with lower protein, vitamin, and mineral levels. The saponin that is removed has commercial uses as pharmaceutical steroids, soaps, detergents, shampoos, cosmetics, and synthetic hormones.
There are ongoing breeding attempts to develop saponin-free quinoa varieties. Currently, quinoa can be classified as sweet (saponin-free or containing less than 0.11 percent saponin) or bitter (more than 0.11 percent saponin). While the sweet varieties require less processing before market, they may be more susceptible to bird production.
Once processed and properly dried, quinoa can last for several years stored in a dry kitchen cabinet.
The price of quinoa has also increased dramatically, nearly tripling between 2006 and 2013 due to high demand in the United States and Europe. Prices started to drop in 2015 indicating a better balance of supply and demand, but there is nevertheless a strong market for quinoa even today. In 2017 quinoa could be purchased for around $1.10 per pound.
Quinoa leaves can be eaten as a leaf, like an amaranth, though the current commercial availability is limited. In addition, the thinning from quinoa production can be incorporated into salads. Quinoa leaves can also be used for livestock feed.
Grain quinoa can be used in side dishes similarly to rice, flaked as a breakfast cereal, added to snack foods and pasta, in multigrain infant cereals, and in ground flour. Because quinoa is gluten free, it reduces bread volume by more than 10 percent when baked.
Starch grains in quinoa are very small, much like those in taro, and it contains less amylose than most commercial starches. It can be used for cream substitutes and dusting in some candy applications.
Quinoa has a higher protein content (14 to 18 percent) than other grains, with a strong amino acid balance. Since it is high in lysine, methionine, and cystine, quinoa complements other grains and legumes, which are deficient in these nutrients. Quinoa also has a higher energy content than barley, oats, rice, corn, and wheat, as well as higher levels of calcium, phosphorus, iron, fiber, and B vitamins. It yields about 5.8 percent oil by weight.
Because it is hardy and can grow anywhere from sea level to 4,000 meters above sea level, quinoa could be beneficial to improve food security in at-risk regions.
- Quinoa, A Plant With a Lot of Potential
- International Year of Quinoa 2013, FAO, UN.
- Quinoa, Alternative Field Crops Manual, University of Wisconsin Extension Service, the University of Minnesota Center for Alternative Plant and Animal Products, and the Minnesota Extension Service, 1992 - This publication provides some costs of production and estimates of market prices as well as other production information.
- Quinoa: An Ancient Crop to Contribute to World Food Security, FAO, UN, 2011.
- Quinoa in Lost Crops of the Incas: Little Known Crops of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation National Academy Press, 1989 - This book excerpt provides 13 pages of background, prospective and other information about quinoa.
- Quinoa, Mother Grain of the Incas, planeta.com, 1999 - This article gives details of the rise and fall of quinoa in the world, its cultivation details and its nutritional details.
- Quinoa: The Dark Side of an Andean Superfood, Time magazine, 2012 - This article outlines the rapid growth in demand from U.S. and European markets and the resulting impact on Bolivian growers.
- Quinoa: Improvement and Sustainable Production 2015.
- Quinoa: The Next Cinderella Crop for Alberta?, Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, Canada, 2005.
USDA ARS North Central Regional Plant Introduction Station
Links checked August 2018.