What Is Quinoa? A Breakdown For Those Of Us Who Eat It But Don't Truly Understand It

06/19/2015 07:00 am ET | Updated Jun 19, 2015
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Second only to maybe kale, quinoa is the health food star of our time. The Food and Agriculture Organization named 2013 the International Year of Quinoa, after all. This tiny grain-like food is full of good-for-you nutrition and tastes great in just about anything: salads, omelettes and even cakes.

We're willing to bet you've eaten a good deal of the stuff, but do you know what it really is? It's okay if you don't, because not many of us do. Today's the day we change that with a few fun facts and photos that tell us about where quinoa comes from.

Here are 8 important things everyone should know about quinoa:

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What quinoa looks like on a plant. (AIZAR RALDES via Getty Images)

1. First, it's pronounced KEEN-wah. Let's just all get that straight.

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Another shot of quinoa in a field. (AIZAR RALDES via Getty Images)

2. The part of the quinoa plant that we eat is the seed -- it's not a grain. It grows from a plant in the goosefoot family, which also produces edibles such as chard and spinach. So although we treat it like a grain, it is not in fact a grain.

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Quinoa being harvested by a combine. (AIZAR RALDES via Getty Images)

3. It's a complete protein -- meaning it contains all nine of the essential amino acids which cannot be made by the body and therefore must come from food. Quinoa is also naturally gluten-free, so it's perfect for healthy eaters. Bonus: This is great news for vegetarians looking to up their protein intake.

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The combine harvester shoots out quinoa seeds. (AIZAR RALDES via Getty Images)

4. Cooked quinoa looks like it has a little curly "string" coming out of it. This is not something that should gross you out -- it's just the seed's germ.

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Seeds being removed by hand, rather than with a combine harvester. (AIZAR RALDES via Getty Images)

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Seeds being processed. (AIZAR RALDES via Getty Images)

6. While we're just getting hip to this healthy seed, quinoa has long been a staple ingredient, dating back to pre-Columbian civilizations in the Andes of Peru and Bolivia.

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More seeds being processed. (AIZAR RALDES via Getty Images)

7. Quinoa is one of the few crops that not only survives but thrives in harsh, unpredictable climates. After all, it originated in the Bolivian Altiplano, known to have over 200 frost days and severe droughts. While many countries are jumping on the quinoa train trying to ramp up production -- including the U.S. and Canada -- results have yet to be as good as Bolivia or Peru's quinoa.

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The final product. Photo credit: emmadiscovery/Flickr

8. Bolivia and Peru are at odds about quinoa farming practices. Bolivia used to dominate quinoa exports, but recently Peru has been climbing the scales. Bolivian farmers are unhappy about the way Peruvian farmers are ramping up production, using factory farming practices and heavy amounts of pesticides while driving down the price of the crop.

Got that? Now go make a bowl with the recipes you'll find below.

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