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Science & Technology


Quinoa – sacred grain of the Incas

September 7th, 2012

Colorful, flowering quinoa plants in an arid region, the Andes Mountains.

Quinoa, cherished by the Inca Empire, suppressed by the conquering Spaniards, very nutritious with a “complete protein”, and also has tasty greens… no wonder people are so excited about this amazing plant and superfood.

Why did it take America so long to discover quinoa?

Quinoa was only brought to the US in the 1980s and was essentially unknown to Americans before this time. Quinoa had been cultivated for 6000 years by the Incas and their ancestors. Quinoa was their second most important crop, the potato being the first and corn (maize). The conquering Spaniards outlawed the growing of quinoa by the natives, perhaps because quinoa was held sacred to the Incas, involved in ceremonies that the Spanish thought were threatening to their control.

Why is quinoa so popular?

Why is quinoa so interesting and increasingly popular? The single biggest reason may be its protein content. Quinoa has what is called a “complete protein”, in other words, a quality balance of amino acids (the building blocks of protein) for human nutrition. Very few plants are known to provide such a good spectrum of amino acids in such an obtainable, edible form. Claims of mixing other vegetable foods to obtain quality protein are often exaggerated or even outright wrong. The Incas certainly recognized its value. Though native Americans didn’t have the technologies of modern science, they understood that quinoa was nutritious and good. And on a continent with often less obtainable animal protein as the Old World, quinoa was likely a critical part of their diet.

Lamb’s quarters – a close relative of quinoa

There are closely-related species of plants in the same genus as quinoa that are often called “lamb’s quarters” or “fat hen” in English-speaking countries. There are species native to North America, Europe and Asia. These quinoa relatives were grown and used similarly to quinoa by Native Americans in North America and much of the Old World. In fact, the lamb’s quarters species are still an important crop in parts of India today. When quinoa was being experimentally grown in Colorado, in the years after it was brought to the US, it’s though that an accidental crossing (hybridization) occurred between quinoa and a wild lamb’s quarters species (possibly Chenopodium berlandieri?). This hybrid resulted in “black quinoa”, where the seed is a very dark color, like the seed of the wild lamb’s quarters.

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