Quinoa Comeback: A Staple in Inca Times, This Nutritious, Versatile "Super Food" Is Undergoing a Resurgence in the Andes and Beyond

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Five thousand years ago, the ancestors of the Inca people grew and ate a nutritious seed crop called quinoa. Although today it makes up only a tiny fraction of the worldwide whole-grain market, quinoa is experiencing tremendous growth in Europe, Canada, the Far East, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. This growth has spawned new opportunities for farmers and villages in the Andes, where poverty rates are historically high and nutrition miserably low.

The Inca believed the crop to be sacred and referred to quinoa as chisaya mama, or "mother grain," because of its exceptional nutritional qualities. The protein content is very high and contains a balanced set of essential amino acids, making it an unusually complete vegetarian food. Quinoa is a good source of dietary fiber and phosphorus, and is high in magnesium, iron, Vitamin B6, Vitamin E, copper, and zinc. It is gluten-free and considered easy to digest.

Quinoa is actually not a grain, but a seed of the Chenopodium or goosefoot plant. The leaves look like a webbed foot of a goose. The plant grows from four to six feet high with large clusters of seeds at the end of a stalk. The seeds--small flattened spheres that look like sesame seeds--are ground into flour and substituted for grains. The leaves of the quinoa plant can also be eaten, like spinach.

There are more than 180 species of quinoa ranging in color from ivory to pink, brown to red, and almost black. Three varieties are mainly cultivated: white, dark red, and black. However, quinoa importers are mixing many varieties to maximize taste and visual appeal and preserve biodiversity for a healthier food supply.

Quinoa grows most successfully in cool, dry temperate regions at high elevations--between 6,000 and 11,000 feet--near the equator, where days and nights are of roughly equal length. It is resistant to drought and receptive to fertilizer.

A 400-year decline in the production of quinoa began with the Spanish conquest in the 1500s. While the Spanish colonists scorned quinoa as "food for indians," they felt threatened by this nutrition source as well. Quinoa was used to strengthen Inca armies while they marched for many days eating a mixture of quinoa and fat, known as "war balls." The Spanish destroyed quinoa fields in an attempt to weaken and conquer the population.

In more recent times, the ruling class told indigenous people that quinoa was not good for human consumption and should only be used as animal feed. The irony is that quinoa had literally gone underground and almost disappeared as malnutrition and poverty soared among the indigenous population in this region.

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However, quinoa has been rediscovered. Paratroopers in World War II used it as a portable "super food." In the United States, it was first introduced commercially in 1982 and since then a handful of other importers have jumped onto the bandwagon. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is considering quinoa as a possible crop for long-duration manned spaceflights. Most imports come from small farmers high in the Andes in Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador, with Bolivia exporting significantly larger amounts. Quinoa is also grown in Canada and the United States, but with minimal success.

Perhaps most significant to the rediscovery of this food source is that the descendents of the Inca are not only growling and selling quinoa but consuming it as well. It's been a long time coming, but quinoa has once again become a staple of indigenous peoples and an important source of income for local farmers and communities.

Pablo Laguna, who helped develop the Fairtrade Labelling Organization's (FLO) international quinoa standards in 2004, says quinoa farming has improved education as well as housing conditions. "This trade is not only helping farmers produce crops, but it helps create other businesses as well, such as small factories, artisans, mechanical services, and transportation," Laguna says. …