Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere


Chenopodium Quinoa

By Jeremy Trombley

Quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wa or KEEN-o-ah) is a grain crop which is native to the Andean region of South America and has been cultivated for around five thousand years (Quinoa). Since it is not a grass, it is classified as a pseudo-cereal, but is used much like traditional cereal crops such as wheat and rice (Johnson). In Quechua the plant is referred to as “chisiya mama” or mother grain, in Spanish it has also been referred to as trigo inca or arroz del Peru (Johnson).

Nutritional Value

Quinoa is a remarkably nutritious food surpassing even rice in its nutrient value (Johnson). It contains approximately 4 to 8 grams of protein per 100 grams, with the full complement of essential amino acids, unlike corn, rice and wheat which must be supplemented with other foods (Johnson). Quinoa is also an excellent source of calcium and fiber, and very low in sodium (Quinoa).

Uses and Preparation

Quinoa comes in a variety of colors from pale white to dark red (Railey). Prior to consumption the quinoa must be soaked and thoroughly rinsed in order to remove the saponins on it surface (Quinoa). Saponins are bitter chemicals which are useful to help protect the grain from birds while under cultivation, but they can ruin the flavor of cooked quinoa, reduce absorption of nutrients and potentially cause intestinal damage (Quinoa). Once the saponins are removed, they may be used medicinally as an antiseptic solution or as a detergent for cleaning clothes (Johnson).

Most quinoa which is commercially available in the U.S. has been machine scrubbed to remove the saponins, but must still be soaked for 10-20 minutes and rinsed four or five times to completely eliminate them (Quinoa).

Quinoa grains can be boiled much like rice and included in a variety of dishes or eaten as a side dish (Railey). It can also be ground into a flour which is free from gluten, superior in nutrition to wheat flour and just as versatile (Johnson). When boiled the germ separates from the seed forming small curly “tails” which give quinoa a unique appearance. The grains can also be toasted and used to add flavor and texture to dishes or as a garnish. The leaves can also be consumed, but are not widely available in the United States (Johnson). Recipes including quinoa are prevalent, though awareness of the grain is still limited in the United States.

Due to its high nutritional value and versatility, one wonders why Quinoa hasn't been adopted more widely around the world. Currently its cultivation and use is still limited largely to the andean region of South America, and it has only recently been introduced to consumers in the United States. One possible explanation is that the Spanish who conquered Peru in the 16th century failed to remove the saponins prior to consuming and so found it distasteful, and subsequently condemned it as “indian food,” and actively suppressed its cultivation and consumption.


Johnson, D.L., and S.M. Ward. “Quinoa.” New Crops. Ed. J. Janick & J.E. Simons. New York: Wiley, 1993. 219-221. 14 Nov 2008

“Quinoa.” 15 Nov 2008

Railey, Karen. “Quinoa from the Andes.” Chet's Day Health and Beyond. 15 Nov 2008

Further Resources

Ancient Harvest Quinoa -