The year is 1993, and quinoa, the ancient grain cultivated in the altiplano region of the Andes, is identified by NASA researchers as a potential crop for the organization’s Controlled Ecological Life Support System group, which helps keep humans alive during long space missions. Quinoa’s particularly high protein content and abundance of amino acids like lysine were particularly celebrated. While no single food source can provide all the nutrients humans need, quinoa, wrote researchers Greg Schlick and David L. Bubenheim, “comes as close as any other in the plant or animal kingdom.”
It took nearly 12 years after the NASA kudos for quinoa to meaningfully gain traction in the U.S. None other than Oprah Winfrey sparked quinoa’s massive rise by including the grain in her popular 21-day cleanse. From 2007 to 2015, U.S. imports of quinoa rose from 7 million pounds to 95 million pounds per year—an impressive 1,257% increase. The U.N. declared 2013 as the International Year of Quinoa.
The tiny but mighty grain (which is technically a seed) didn’t just spark an increased American appetite for protein-rich foods. It also played an instrumental role in launching ancient grains—which have been unaltered by breeding or genetic modification for thousands of years—into the national spotlight as well.
As food trends go, however, so do censuring naysayers. “Grain Brain” (Hachette, 2013), authored by David Perlmutter, M.D., argued grains were the mind’s “silent killers,” and as the paleo movement paved the way for keto adoption, grains of all ilk started to lose favor with natural brands and were even vilified. According to data from Informa Markets’ NEXT Data & Insights team, from Natural Products Expo West 2017 to 2019, products containing quinoa fell by 34%. Products containing “ancient grains” slid 2% over the same time period.
New and natural brands seeking alternatives to traditionally wheat-containing foods entered the market (think cauliflower crust pizza). “Grain free” started to appear on the front of packaging, marking fats and proteins as hallmarks of an optimal diet and suggesting grains were the culprit for modern ailments.
Despite cultural backlash of grains, they are still an important food group—but they are in the midst of a reckoning. Suppliers are working to transform grains back into the eco-friendly superfood they were in the early aughts and lay the foundation for a future where grains are the solution to the largest food system challenges today.
To read this article in its entirety, check out the Grains redefined: Formulating for healthy products – digital magazine.
Jenna Blumenfeld lives in Boulder, Colorado, where she reports on the natural products industry, sustainable agriculture and all things plant based.