Debunking Quinoa Myths at White Mountain Farm


Farmer Ernie New showing how to get the quinoa seed out of the shell

During my college visit road trip — my last as Midwest Fellow, before becoming sustainability manager for Bon Appétit at Denison University — I visited Farm to Fork partner White Mountain Farm. Ernie New was my tour guide on this property in the gorgeous San Luis Valley of Colorado; his son Paul now runs the family business, but Ernie was in charge in 1987 when White Mountain Farm incorporated and started growing organically certified quinoa and potatoes as part of a research project with professors at Colorado State University.

Quinoa has become such a worldwide culinary craze that the UK newspaper the Telegraph reported, “Ethical consumers should be aware poor Bolivians can no longer afford their staple grain, due to western demand raising prices.” That’s been debunked (here and here), but obviously, buying North American-grown quinoa would be one way to assuage any residual guilt.

White Mountain claims to be the only successful large-scale quinoa operation in North America, and Ernie gets more orders than he can fill. (Seriously, he was hesitant to let me visit because he didn’t want me to do any advertising!)

But luckily, he did let me visit, and I picked his brain about this delicious Incan superfood that has inundated health food stores and BAMCO cafés across the country.

Here some of the quinoa truths and myths we discussed:

Quinoa is something you should avoid out of fear of being asked to pronounce it. FALSE

Don’t let the vowel laden name or that pesky “Q” scare you off, it is pronounced KEEN-wah.

When I lived in the woods doing trail maintenance, quinoa was a lifesaver because in addition to being light and having better expansion than rice, it is high in protein (and contains all eight essential amino acids, so no need to pair with legumes!) and kept me both healthy and full. It was like a ninja that kept my seemingly insatiable hunger at bay, so just say it once while striking a karate pose, and I promise you’ll never forget it.

Quinoa is difficult to grow because it requires a certain altitude and therefore has historically grown in the Andes Mountains. FALSE

“It’s not altitude, it’s temperature,” Ernie explained to me. If the temperature gets above 85-90 degrees, eventually it will kill the pollen, and the plant won’t set seed. At the other extreme, it can take a bit of frost but not much.

Quinoa plants growing against the backdrop of the beautiful Rocky Mountains in the San Luis Valley

Quinoa plants growing against the backdrop of the beautiful Rocky Mountains in the San Luis Valley

Quinoa is a cereal grain, like rice or wheat. FALSE

Quinoa is not a member of the grass family but rather is a chenopod. The little balls we eat are actually the seed of the plant; you can also eat the leaves of the plant, though they’re not commercially available, and when Ernie has tried to sell them at farmers’ markets, “folks don’t know what to do with them.”

However, White Mountain Farms website claims that quinoa “can be substituted for nearly any grain in almost any recipe.” Ernie and his family enjoy quinoa for breakfast, and his three kids all preferred it a different way: one soupy with milk and sugar, one thick and sweetened with honey, and one cooked in fruit juice instead of water (his favorite was orange and mango).

Quinoa is more environmentally friendly than rice and similar grains, mainly because it takes less water to grow. TRUE

Quinoa only requires 11 to 12 inches of water a year, which is less than what even barley or potatoes requires (18 to 20 inches). Actually, the lack of rainfall is one of the reasons that the San Luis Valley is ideal for growing quinoa. The plant can’t get wet in the fall, otherwise the seeds will sprout. Although sprouting is a popular way to improve the nutrition of plant, once sprouted, it will keep growing, so it has an extremely short shelf life.

Quinoa is “hippie food.” TRUE, according to Ernie.

When I asked him what he would say to people who claim that quinoa is just a hippie food, his replied, laughing, “Yeah, didn’t you know that?” Quinoa is known as the Mother Grain of the Incas and has been grown in the Andes Mountains for thousands of years, though it only recently achieved popularity in the U.S. because of its many health benefits. Quinoa fans I know range from culinarians and backpackers to bodybuilders and vegan activists, so its clientele is growing!

OK, but if I can’t buy Ernie’s quinoa, should I avoid the Bolivian kind? I don’t want impoverished Bolivians to go hungry. FALSE

Subsequent responses to the Telegraph article (and the many news outlets that passed it on)—including a specific one by a documentary crew filming with Bolivian quinoa farmers — debunked that worldwide quinoa trade was depriving Bolivians of their native staple.You can eat it with a clear conscience. Still, it’s always a good exercise to think about the greater effect of your food choices on the global environment and community.

Now, the next time someone asks you about those weird little balls you’re eating, you’ll be armed with lots of fun facts about this hunger-fighting ninja.