Published: 1994-10-19

Rate This Resource

1 Ratings

This crop was second in importance only to corn in the Incan empire, which extended over much of the Andes mountains in South America. “Its grain is rich in protein and contains a better amino acid balance than the protein in most cereals. …Today it is made into flour for baked goods, breakfast cereals, beer, soups, desserts and even livestock feed. When cooked in water, it swells and becomes almost transparent. It has a mild taste and a firm texture like that of wild rice…. Traditionally, quinoa is prepared like common rice or is used to thicken soups, but some varieties are also popped like popcorn.”

“Quinoa has demonstrated value as a partial wheat-flour substitute for enriching unleavened bread, cakes, and cookies. Blends of 70% wheat, 30% quinoa flour produce fully acceptable loaf breads.”

“Quinoa’s large seedheads and broad leaves make it look something like a cross between sorghum and spinach.” Visitors who see quinoa at ECHO before seed heads form almost always think it is the (edible) weed lambsquarter, to which it is closely related. It is sometimes called a “pseudocereal” because its use is similar to that of cereals but the plant is not in the grass family. Plants are 0.5-3 meters tall.

The leaves are eaten fresh or cooked. Nitrates and oxalates, which are high enough in some greens to be a health concern, are very low in quinoa leaves.

“Quinoa has an exceptionally nutritious balance of protein, fat, oil and starch. The embryo takes up a greater proportion of the seeds than in normal cereals, so the protein content is high. Quinoa seeds average 16% protein but can contain up to 23%, more than twice the level in common cereals."1 It is "high in the essential amino acids lysine, methionine and cystine, making it complementary both to other grains (which are notably deficient in lysine) and to legumes such as beans (which are deficient in methionine and cystine). Quinoa is higher than wheat, corn or white rice in iron (6.6 mg, 4.6, 3.7, and 0 mg respectively.), phosphorus (449, 224, 207 and 143 mg), and calcium (141, 36, 6 and 8 mg).

"While no single food can supply all of the essential life-sustaining nutrients, quinoa comes as close as any other…. It holds exceptional promise as a weaning food.”

Quinoa has been grown almost exclusively in the Andean countries which were formerly part of the Incan empire. The grain has been looked down upon as a poor man’s food until recently. There is now increased interest in these countries of origin, due in part to efforts of local governments and increasing interest in healthy foods, and in part to its growing popularity in western countries, where new, tasty and healthful foods bring a premium price.

Quinoa is known for its resistance to tough conditions. It will grow where corn will not because of cool weather and dry conditions. During a devastating drought in the altiplano in 1982-83, 66% of Bolivia’s potato crop was lost, 25% of corn, 54% of barley, 44% of wheat, 34% of cassava but only 7% of quinoa. In Peru the figures were 27% potato, 6% corn, 26% barley, and 0% for quinoa.

There is great diversity in plant characteristics. “A classification based on ecotype recognizes five basic categories. (1) Valley type, grown in valleys from 2,000-3,600 m. Tall, branched, long growth periods. (2) Altiplano type, frost hardy, short, unbranched, short growth periods and compact seedheads. (3) Salar type, native to salt flat in the Bolivian altiplano. (4) Chilean type, grown at low elevation sites between 34°S and 41°S in Chile, will flower even with long days. (5) Subtropical, located in valleys between mountains in Bolivia, intensely green plants that turn orange at maturity and have small, white or yellow-orange seeds.”

Farmers and scientists in parts of the industrialized world where weather in the summer months resembles weather in the Andes have been trying to develop quinoa as a crop since the early 1980s. Because they originated near the equator where days are short, most varieties are daylength sensitive (require short days to flower) and do not do well. However, there are varieties which grow near sea level in Chile where days are long. These have proved more adaptable to high latitudes.

A drawback to quinoa production and use on a small scale is that the seeds contain a substance called “saponins,” located in the seed coat. These cause the grain to be extremely bitter. They can easily be mechanically removed with appropriate equipment. Lacking such equipment, the grain can be soaked in water to dissolve the saponins. However, it is more difficult to get a uniform product this way.

I spoke with Dr. Duane Johnson at Colorado State University about quinoa and its potential. He had just returned from harvesting his experimental plots of quinoa there in Colorado.

Q. We know that the equatorial types require short days to produce seed but that Chilean types do not. Do Chilean quinoas actually require long days or are they day-neutral (produce in any daylength)?

A. They are day-neutral. That means that if ECHO sends Chilean seed to its network, it should not fail because of daylength. However, people in equatorial highlands would probably prefer equatorial types. They tend to have larger, white seeds; Chilean quinoas are smaller and colored. White seeds are generally softer and it is easier to remove the bitter saponins. Chilean types are harder and more extensive work is required to remove the saponins.

Q. The Chilean types are unbranched. Does that mean they should be planted more densely than equatorial types?

A. Yes. We plant 2 pounds/acre of equatorial seed but 5 pounds/acre with Chilean. That corresponds to a plant spacing of 3-4 inches (7.6-10 cm) and 2 inches (5 cm) respectively. Most farmers in Colorado use rows 16 inches (40 cm) wide, but some use 8 and others 20 in (20-50 cm), depending on moisture. [If rainfall is limiting, having fewer plants with wider spacing will require less water.]

Q. What are the climatic boundaries beyond which quinoa has little potential? E. g. will Chilean sea level types do well in tropical lowlands?

A. They have the greatest heat tolerance, but we don’t recommend them where temperatures exceed 92°F/33°C, especially during the flowering period (July here in Colorado). We have quinoa growing from Finland to Australia, but mostly in temperate regions. Quinoa is very susceptible to downy and powdery mildew. It likes low humidity. Cool nights are probably important, though I have no data to prove that. It does well here where temperatures average 80°F day, 45°F night (27°C and 7°C). It does not do as well in broad valleys where night temperatures remain rather high, though at 7,000 feet it does great even in valleys.

Q. Are there Subtropical quinoas?
A. There are related species, mainly back garden types. They grow, for example, in parts of Mexico. [Ed: Can anyone get us a start on seed for these?]

Q. I read that the equatorial quinoas grow so well in Colorado that they might make good forage.
A. Equatorial types produce tremendous biomass here, but we get no seed production. It could be used for forage only if we imported seeds.

Q. How complex is it to remove saponins at the “village” level?
A. It is pretty simple. Pillsbury Co. gave us a $7,000 rice dehuller (a carborundum stone that spins and knocks the coating off, designed for 3rd world countries). It works even with the harder Chilean types, though they require 2 passes. Once dehulled it tastes just as good. Actually I prefer the Chilean varieties, which to me have a richer, nuttier flavor. I find the equatorial types somewhat bland.

Q. Do the saponins give the color to the seed coat? If so, can you learn anything important by noting the color of the grain, e. g. whether birds might avoid it?

A. The saponins are buried in a pericarp, like the rind on an orange. Color does not really tell you anything useful. There is no correlation between color and bird resistance.

Q. What is the status of saponin-free varieties? Are they more prone to insect and disease loss?
A. We are currently investigating these varieties, but I have some hesitation after this year’s results. Birds were definitely a more serious problem with saponin-free varieties -I’d estimate 30% loss to bird damage. This is in middle of a 150-mile valley with no trees within 2 miles of the plots. But migrating birds found it (other grain fields had been harvested). [ED: Has anyone noticed whether bird damage is a more serious problem in general on farms making heavy use of agroforestry techniques?]

Q. I read that in early trials in Colorado improved, selected varieties from South America did not do as well as less selected varieties. Presumably the loss in variability during the selection process lost some traits that were important in Colorado. So should I offer your selected varieties to ECHO’s network or will they likewise perform less well than the original seed might have done?

A. We find that selected lines from South America aren’t as good for us. The same may be true of our varieties when tried elsewhere. We have selected two: Apalawa and Colorado 407. I maintained the old original material, which would probably be better for widespread preliminary trials.

Q. Is quinoa becoming commercialized outside the Andes?
A. About 500 acres are grown in Colorado and 200 each in Washington and Wyoming. It is processed and sold to health food industries. Till this year 50% was sold here and 50% went to Europe. This year 99% will be sold in the USA. Europeans are now buying from South America. Nestle invested $5,000,000 in Ecuador in research in quinoa. Starch from quinoa is being used in synthetic cream products. The market for quinoa is increasing. Canada is becoming a dominant force, growing 2,000 acres last year.

Q. Where are the main places for seed of diverse types? Or are Andean countries hesitant to share seed?

A. Ecuador and Bolivia have been very helpful in exchanging seeds with us. An organization in Ecuador, INIAP, would be the place to write for equatorial types. Their address is Estación Experimental “STA Catalina”, Casilla 340, Quito, Ecuador. FAX 593-2 504240. In Bolivia it is more a matter of going down and seeing what you can find.

Q. Do you have any final comments?
A. There is a southern Bolivian type that I like very much. But it requires a longer season than we have in Colorado (105 days). I like it because it has larger seed and a softer pericarp, but is dayneutral.

If you want to try growing quinoa in your area, ECHO suggests three options.

Option 1: Chilean types. Dr. Johnson is sending ECHO enough Chilean quinoa seed (Apalawa and Colorado 407 varieties) to let us send small introductory packets to our overseas network. These should bloom under the broadest range of day lengths (assuming that temperature and other conditions are right.

Option 2: Equatorial mix. If you work nearer the equator and at high altitudes, you may prefer the equatorial type. We will send a packet containing seed of several varieties mixed together. Since you will harvest seed only from those that do well, you will soon have your own mix of locally adapted quinoa. If your work is more of a scientific nature where the variety names are important, we can send separate packages of named varieties. Option 3: Chilean and equatorial mixes. If you are unsure which type would do best, one packet contains a mix of equatorial varieties and one packet a mix of the two sent by Dr. Johnson..

Seeds are free to community development workerss. (We do not consider quinoa worth trying in hot, humid lowlands nor where high temperatures are much over 92°F/33°C.) [This article relied heavily on the book Lost Crops of the Incas, the National Academy Press, 1989 and an article 2 “Quinoa: Grain of the Incas” by David Cusack, in The Ecologist Vol 14: 21-31, 1984.] David, an early member of ECHO’s network, was shot and killed during a 1984 trip to South America to collect quinoa seed.