06/13/2017 06:01 am ET

Quinoa's 'Seed Or Grain' Debate Ends Right Here

It's not as simple as you think.
A close up of dried quinoa, measured out on a spoon.
bhofack2 via Getty Images
A close up of dried quinoa, measured out on a spoon.

There’s an innocent debate happening around quinoa. People can’t seem to decide whether it’s a grain or a seed.

There was a time when everyone called it a grain ― even we did back in 2013. Then there were many articles correcting the grain label, explaining that quinoa is in fact a seed ― we also did that.

We’re going to end the debate once and for all, with the help of Craig Morris. He’s the director of the USDA ARS Western Wheat Quality Laboratory and former editor-in-chief of Cereal Chemistry

First, we need to understand what a grain is and what a seed is.

According to Merriam-Webster, a seed is "the grains or ripened ovules of plants used for sowing" and a grain is "a single small hard seed." One term is basically used to define the other, so what’s the difference?

“A grain and a seed are very nearly the same thing, although you can imagine that a tomato seed is not a grain,” Morris explained to HuffPost. “Once in a while we differentiate that a grain is going to be eaten, whereas a seed is going to be planted (kinda trivial).”

Since we eat quinoa, according to Morris, we can call it a grain without being wrong.

Why is there a debate about quinoa being a grain or a seed?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary, as we mentioned above, defines a grain as a "single small hard seed," but when people talk about grains such as wheat and rice, they’re referring to cereal grains. And quinoa is not a cereal grain. 

Cereal grains ― which include oats, wheat, rice, corn, barley, rye, sorghum and millet ― are the edible seeds of specific grasses belonging to the Poaceae family. 

Quinoa is a seed that is harvested from a tall, leafy plant that is not a cereal grass ― that’s a relative of spinach, beets and chard. And so quinoa is technically classified as a pseudo-cereal grain, along with amaranth and buckwheat. Pseudo-cereal grains are seeds from a number of different plant species external to the Poaceae family that are eaten in a similar fashion to cereal grains.

So these pseudo-cereal grains are not true grains, but because they’re cooked and eaten in a similar way as other grains they all seem to get lumped into the same grain category.

Is it wrong to call quinoa a grain?

“No, I don’t believe that it is wrong,” says Morris. “Merriam-Webster includes, ‘the seeds or fruits of various food plants including the cereal grasses and in commercial and statutory usage other plants (such as the soybean).’”

Turns out, there’s a lot to know about these tiny seeds that are technically pseudo-cereal grains. But you can informally refer to quinoa as a grain. And now that you know, go cook the stuff and use it in one of these recipes below!