The origins of quinoa - by Professor Alice Roberts

18/05/2020 — By Alexandra Julian

The origins of quinoa - by Professor Alice Roberts

For our 20th year, we have teamed up with Professor Alice Roberts, the renowned science communicator, academic and broadcaster. Alice will be collaborating with us throughout 2017 as our official science communication advisor and brand ambassador, helping us to continue our legacy of using nature and science in balance.


In her first guest blog for Green People, Alice takes a closer look at quinoa, one of our favourite ingredients to use in organic hair care products.


Avocado and Quinoa - or the 'Goose-Footed Mother Grain' - by Alice Roberts

A combination that sounds like a hipster sandwich in a Shoreditch cafe - but in the hands of Green People it becomes a treat for the outside of your body, not your insides. This pairing lies at the heart of a product that I’ve only been using for a month or two but it’s already a firm favourite. I have fine, flyaway, scruffy hair. Green People’s quinoa and avocado hair serum tames it in a way I didn’t think possible. My husband has equally fine hair - almost like brown smoke - and generally eschews any such products. But I’ve noticed he’s stealing it, and it turns out he loves it. It leaves me wondering how we ever did without it.


But it also leaves me wondering - what the hell is quinoa anyway? I think it appeared on my radar a couple of years ago. I know it’s a grain. I’ve even eaten some. But where does it come from? This is a question that has been obsessing me for years. Not the origin of quinoa in particular, you understand, but the origin of all sorts of species.


I am, first and foremost, an evolutionary anthropologist - I’m interested in human evolution, in where we’ve come from, and how the human body and mind has been shaped by natural forces acting out over aeons, making small changes, generation by generation, until we get to where we are today. We can trace our evolutionary heritage using archaeology, physical anthropology (mostly the study of old bones) and now - genetics. As well as being the code for life, DNA also holds an amazing record of the past. And so stones, bones and genes offer us the potential to reconstruct the prehistoric development of the human species. But you can take the same tools, and approach the same question, for any species. That’s what I’ve done in my new book, Tamed, which looks into the origins of ten domesticated species - from dogs and horses, to wheat and rice. But what about quinoa - what exactly is it, and where does it come from?



What is quinoa?

The full botanical name for quinoa is Chenopodium quinoa. Chenopodium means “goose foot” in Greek - and plants in this genus are commonly known by that name. The leaves do look a bit like webbed birds’ feet, albeit green. Most grain crops - wheat, rye, oats, rice - you name it, come from the grass family; they are true cereals. But not quinoa - it’s a pseudocereal - it comes from the family Amaranthaceae, which contains a diverse range of flowering plants including beetroot, sea-blites and samphire. Quinoa itself can grow up to three metres in height, and produces turrets of flowers, which turn into seed-heads - and it’s these seeds, which are between 1 and 4mm in diameter, which are collected as grain. They can be cooked like rice. The leaves of quinoa can also be eaten.


As a food, quinoa is similar to wheat in some ways, but it’s slightly more energy dense, and contains more oil than wheat or maize. It contains about the same amount of protein, but there is something remarkable here: it’s the only plant food that contains all the essential amino acids - the building blocks of proteins that the human body can’t make itself. (Although, to be fair, you can easily bag all ten by combining plant foods - eating rice with lentils, for instance, or peanut butter on toast). Compared with other grains, quinoa contains higher concentrations of calcium, magnesium and iron. Unlike wheat, it doesn’t contain gluten - and this is probably an important contributor to its recent success. Gluten is an indigestible mixture of proteins in wheat. For most people, it doesn’t pose a problem, but for those with coeliac disease - around one in a hundred people in the UK - gluten causes a severe adverse reaction in the gut. So, gluten-free, protein-rich quinoa may be a hot new trend, but it’s not a new food, far from it.


Where is quinoa from?

In Eurasia, a closely related plant, Chenopodium album, white goosefoot, has been eaten for thousands of years. It formed a part of Neolithic and Bronze Age diets, and is still cultivated and eaten in northern India. But quinoa itself comes from Chile. It was domesticated between 3 and 4 thousand years ago, and its wild counterpart had been gathered as a food for thousands of years before that. It may have started out as a highland crop, then spreading to the lowlands and interbreeding with wild relatives. It became a staple crop in South America.


Quinoa was a sacred food of the Incas, who called it chisoya mama, “the mother of grains”. But when the Spanish arrived, they discouraged quinoa cultivation and forced the Native Americans to grow wheat and rye instead. But the indigenous people continued to sow and harvest quinoa up in the mountains. A few hundred years later, and this crop has been transformed into a sought-after, global commodity. It has recently been introduced to North America and Europe, but It’s still mainly grown in Bolivia and Peru. Quinoa crop prices tripled between 2006 and 2013, and the price of quinoa is now around ten times that of wheat.


This has to be handled carefully. It has become a cash crop - and that’s a double edged sword. Poor farmers can make a decent income from growing and selling it, but if they end up selling their entire crop, rather than eating any of it, then they could face malnutrition. During the Irish potato famine of the mid nineteenth century, farmers were still growing and exporting valuable wheat to Britain, while their own staple crop rotted in the fields. The Bolivian government has welcomed the upsurge of interest in quinoa, and the income boost it has provided for poor farmers, but at the same time is encouraging Bolivians to eat quinoa themselves as well.


The ethically sourced quinoa used in Green People products is grown in the mountains of Colorado, USA and is cultivated specifically for use in cosmetics. It has no impact on the price or availability of the quinoa used as a food source in South America.


Quinoa has been recognised as an important crop for food security - based on its nutritive value, combined with its ability to grow in a wide range of environments, from sea level right up into the mountains, in both acidic and alkaline soils, and it’s also drought-tolerant. The FAO declared 2013 the “International Year of Quinoa”. What an astonishing transformation then, from sacred grain, to a peasant food, to something which is - variously - a chic luxury, a home-grown staple and a potential keystone of global food security. Quinoa is clearly here to stay.


We’ve been back in time to the first farmers of the Andes, to the Spanish conquistadors and then right back up to the present with the booming success of the Andean goosefoot, this mother of grains. That’s just the story of one ingredient - one species. Just wait until I get on to avocados!



Ruiz KB et al. (2014) Quinoa biodiversity and sustainability for food security under cli-mate change. A review. Agronomy for Sustainable Development 34: 349-359.

Vega-Galvez et al. (2010) Nutrition facts and functional potential of quinoa. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture 15: 2541-2547.

Alice Roberts’ new book Tamed will be out in October 2018, and she’s going on tour to talk about it: