QUINOA – From the INCA’s to NASA

Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa), a name derived from the Spanish “quinua” or Quechua, and pronounced “Keenwa” is a species of goosefoot a grain-like crop grown primarily for its edible seeds.

It is a pseudo-cereal rather than a true cereal, or grain, as it is not a member of the grass family. As a chenopod, quinoa is closely related to species such as beets, spinach, and tumbleweeds.

Quinoa is an Ancient Grain that grows high in the Andes Mountains of Peru and Bolivia as well as the high altitude regions of Colorado, USA well above the tree line in the purest of environments. This “Noble Grain” was a very important food to the Ancient Incas, and is highly regarded and consumed by health-conscious consumers to this day.

Up until now, the harvesting of Quinoa has mainly been done by hand and only rarely by machine. This is because of the extremely variable periods of maturity of native Quinoas, which increases difficulty of mechanization. Therefore, an exact timing of harvest is important in order to avoid high losses of grain due to shattering. However, the exact harvesting time is difficult to determine because seed heads of the same plant mature at different times.

The grain yield reaches comparable dimensions (often between 3 – 5 tons per hectare) to Wheat yields in the Andean areas. Handling involves threshing the seed heads and winnowing the seed to remove the husk. Before storage, the seeds need to be dried in order to avoid germination.

Quinoa was of great nutritional importance in pre-Columbian Andean civilizations, second only to the Potato, and was followed in importance by Maize. In contemporary times, this crop has become highly appreciated for its nutritional value, as its protein content is very high (12%–18%). Unlike wheat or rice (which are low in lysine), and like oats, Quinoa contains a balanced set of essential amino acids for humans, making it a complete protein source, unusual among plant foods.

It is a good source of dietary fibre and phosphorus and is high in magnesium and iron. Quinoa is gluten-free and considered easy to digest. Because of all these characteristics, quinoa is being considered a possible crop in NASA’s Controlled Ecological Life Support System for long-duration manned spaceflights.

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