The Recipe for Quinoa’s Rise: Millennials … and Oprah

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

When Jeff Maughan began researching quinoa in the 1980s, only diehard health nuts had heard of it. In fact, when Maughan, a plant geneticist at Brigham Young University, told people he studied the native Andean seed, they used to laugh. “They’d ask, ‘Is that some kind of dog or cat species?’” he says. “They had no idea.”

Not anymore.

Today, quinoa is a major food trend. A third of Americans have tried it, and 17 percent list it among their favorite foods. Grocery stores sell multiple varieties — yellow, red, black — celebrity chefs endorse it, and McDonald’s might even offer it as an alternative to fries.

It’s a big change for a little seed, which, for thousands of years was a diet staple for Bolivians and Peruvians, but virtually unknown outside of South America. The story of how and why that changed has to do with globalization, shifting demographics, and Oprah.

Coming to America

Quinoa likely made its United States debut in 1913 as one of the 400 “charming botanical strangers” brought to the U.S. by the Department of Agriculture. The federal government hoped to get farmers excited about growing the seed.

It didn’t work.

For the next 80 years, quinoa hovered on the fringes of our eating culture. Scientists studied it, and a couple of Coloradans tried to grow the plant in the Rockies. NASA thought about sending it into space as astronaut food because it’s so nutritionally complete. The ingredient even got a little pop culture boost in 1987, when the king and queen of Spain visited Peru. They raved about the quinoa they sampled and the media took note. Suddenly, Lima’s elites saw quinoa as something other than “poor people food.” They rushed to the stores.

Still, American consumers would have been hard-pressed to find quinoa at their local grocery store.

Quinoa and Millennials

That began to change in the late 1990s, as consumers’ eating habits shifted. “Millennials began shopping for food,” Maughan says. “And they were more interested in health, in eating well. That pushed whole foods to the forefront.” Around the same time, food writers began talking about quinoa’s nutritional quality. They marveled at the plant’s protein content — 15 percent — and its balance of amino acids, calcium, and other vitamins.

“Quinoa was aided by a more adventurous ‘Food Network’ food culture too,” Maughan observes. “There was much more interest in food diversity, and in different ways to eat.” The so-called ancient grain satisfied eaters’ hunger for health food and their interest in the exotic. It didn’t hurt, he adds, that it’s gluten-free.

(Image credit: Meme Generator)

The Oprah Effect

Oprah, America’s dieter-in-chief, helped turn the grain’s popularity among the affluent and health-conscious into a full-blown mania. In 2008, the celebrity embarked on a 21-day “cleanse” diet that included quinoa with mushrooms. Buyers went crazy. In 2007, the United States imported 7.3 million pounds of quinoa. By 2013, we were buying 60 million pounds. Stores like Costco, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods began stocking the seed. Fast-casual restaurants like Sweetgreen and Protein Bar began incorporating quinoa into their salads and shakes.

Five years later, the United Nations would declare 2013 the “International Year of Quinoa,” saying the grain had the power to fight malnutrition and advance food security.

The Impact on South America

South America’s farmers weren’t equipped to double or triple their output — at least not as quickly as quinoa’s newfound popularity demanded. As a result, prices spiked. In 2000, a 16-ounce box of Andean Naturals quinoa retailed for about $1. A decade later, it had jumped to $4. That meant more money for farmers — in the Andes mountains, the income of quinoa farmers has jumped from about $35 per family per month to about $220.

But it’s not all good news. The increase in price also means some Peruvians and Bolivians have started substituting rice and noodles, which are more affordable but don’t have the same nutritional benefits. “I adore quinoa, but I can’t afford it anymore,” Micaela Huanca, 50, a street vendor in La Paz, told the New York Times in 2011. “I look at it in the markets and walk away.”

The Times They Are a Changin’

While 95 percent of the world’s quinoa is still grown in Bolivia and Peru, farmers elsewhere — particularly in Canada and cool Western states, like Washington and Oregon — are trying to break in. It’s not easy. Quinoa is a temperamental plant, requiring cool, arid air and breezy evenings. Often, farmers have to suffer through years of unsuccessful harvests — seasons when the seeds crack, get overtaken by weeds, or killed by excess heat or chill. Slowly, though, they’re getting it right.

And once farmers begin to mass-produce the grain, Maughan predicts we’ll see many more mainstream brands jump on the quinoa bandwagon. “Once there’s enough stock, I’m sure we’ll see companies produce quinoa cereal and other products,” he says. In other words — we’re nowhere near peak quinoa yet.