Quinoa is a very trendy food product these days and a lot of people ask if it’s vegan-friendly. Specifically, folks wanna know if there are any animals exploited in its production.
Is it vegan? Yes, quinoa in itself is 100% vegan. It’s simply the seeds from the Chenopodium plant and is botanically considered a fruit.1 Thus, it’s plant-derived and considered vegan. That’s not to say that all varieties you’ll encounter are vegan-friendly as many boxes come with other ingredients like milk.
But quinoa itself is vegan. Obviously, the composition is only one factor to consider. So, what we’ll do here is get into the various reasons quinoa qualifies as a vegan food.
Why Quinoa is Considered Vegan
Quinoa Is a Plant Food
“Cereal grain” is the designation given to seeds from the grass family Gramineae.1
Gramineae or Poaceae is a large and ubiquitous family of flowering plants collectively known as grasses. This type of grass includes the cereal grasses, as well as bamboos and grasses cultivated for pastures and lawns.
The edible portion of the grass is called the caryopsis, aka the grain, kernel, or berry.1
Anyway, in recent times newer so-called grains have hit the market—namely, quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat.
This type of “grain” isn’t really a grain at all. Instead, they’re actually what’s known as psuedograins or false grains because they derive from broadleaf plants instead of grasses.1
Nutritionally, they’re essentially grains which is why they’re often referred to as such.
Again, quinoa is from the seeds of the Chenopodium plant and is technically a fruit, which is why it’s gluten-free.1
I say “new” grain, but quinoa has actually been around quite a long time. It’s been a staple food in Andean cultures since 3000 BC and it’s sometimes referred to as “Inca rice.” The Incas of South America actually referred to it as the “mother of all grains.”1 Some cultures consider quinoa a sacred crop.
It’s just that it’s finally hit the market in recent times. It’s popular among consumers due to its relatively high protein content (13%), and the fact that it’s gluten-free.2
It also has a pleasant nutty taste. Once the small, seed-like kernels are rinsed to remove the bitter coating of saponin, the plant takes on a mild, pleasant-flavor.
Anyway, being completely of plant-origin renders the food vegan and vegetarian-friendly.
Quinoa Is a Relatively Sustainable Crop
One other issue that often comes up for vegans is whether a crop is thought to be environmentally sustainable.
Quinoa crops happen to be self-fertilizing which is always a good thing.3,4
Keep in mind, the use of fertilizers wouldn’t preclude a crop from being vegan. But, as an ethical vegan primarily concerned with animal welfare, it’s nice to know when a crop you’re consuming doesn’t use problematic fertilizers.
For example, some crops use organic fertilizers which are derived from formerly living matter (i.e. animals).5
Then there are chemical fertilizers which can be an issue for eco vegans who have additional criteria they look for when assessing the suitability of certain foods.
Chemical fertilizers like phosphorus are derived from the earth. They’ve been used excessively over the past few decades in an effort to accommodate the reduced natural fertility of US soil.6
The excessive reliance on such fertilizers—specifically phosphate, potassium, and nitrogen—has had some pretty nasty impacts on the environment.
- The fact that they’re produced from nonrenewable resources.7
- Increased air pollution that results from their use.8
- The contamination of groundwater.9 Nitrogen accumulates in water, resulting in “red tides” in estuaries and “alga blooms” in lakes.10 This results in soil pollution, causing damage to plants and animals.10
- Reduction in biodiversity.10 The mining of the phosphate rock has significant negative impacts on the environment’s biodiversity.10
So anyway, it’s good to know that quinoa requires none of these unsavory fertilizers.
Keep in mind, some have raised concerns about the economic impact of quinoa on cultures that rely on it as a staple food.
The Guardian put out an article titled, Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa? wherein the author outlined a number of negative effects resulting from the popularization of this crop.
It was mentioned above that the Andean culture relies heavily on this food for nutritional and cultural reasons. The article stressed that over the past few years, the Andeans’ staple grain has become too expensive for many to acquire and consume regularly.
However, this is an issue of food security. While it’s definitely something to be concerned with, and perhaps warrants choosing another grain (I’m sure there are strong arguments on both sides), that concern is really outside the scope of vegan and vegetarian ethics.
Make no mistake, quinoa is a vegan food product. It’s not that the authors were claiming that it isn’t vegan. I’m just bringing this up to clarify that the issues outlined in the Guardian article don’t constitute a uniquely vegan concern.
- Brannon CA. Ancient and alternative grains. Today’s Dietician 9(5):1016, 2007.
- Brinegar C. Th e seed storage proteins of quinoa. In S Damodaram, ed. Food Proteins and Lipids, 109–115. Plenum, 1997.
- The Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-Known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation. U.S. National Research Council, Advisory Committee on Technology Innovation, National Academies. 1989.
- Reinhard Lieberei, Christoph Reissdorff & Wolfgang Franke (2007). Nutzpflanzenkunde. Georg Thieme Verlag. ISBN 978-3135304076.
- Heinrich Dittmar, Manfred Drach, Ralf Vosskamp, Martin E. Trenkel, Reinhold Gutser, Günter Steffens “Fertilizers, 2. Types” in Ullmann’s Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry, 2009, Wiley-VCH, Weinheim.
- Pimentel D, Pimentel M. 1983. The future of American agriculture. In Sustainable Food Systems, ed. D Knorr, 3–27. Westport, CT: Avi Publishers.
- Viglizzo EF, Pordomingo AJ, Castro MG, Lértora FA. 2003. Environmental assessment of agriculture at a regional scale in the Pampas of Argentina. Environ Monit Assess 87 (2):169–95.
- Cowling E, Galloway J, Furiness C, Barber M, Bresser T, Cassman K, Erisman JW et al. 2001. Optimizing nitrogen management in food and energy production and environmental protection: Summary statement from the Second International Nitrogen Conference. Scientific World Journal 1:1–9.
- Baroni L, Cenci L, Tettamanti M, Berati M. 2007. Evaluating the environmental impact of various dietary patterns combined with different food production systems. Eur J Clin Nutr 61 (2):279–86.
- Zhu ZL, Chen DL. 2002. Nitrogen fertilizer use in China—Contributions to food production, impacts on the environment and best management strategies. Nutr Cycl Agroecosyst 63 (2–3):117–27.