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Breadroot Cooperative in Rapid City sells about 100 pounds of quinoa each month, up sharply from sales just two years ago as more Americans choose to add the superfood’s health benefits to their diets, said Leon Roberts, a co-op member and staffer.

“People are obsessed with quinoa,” agrees “Quinoa Cuisine” publicist Beth Cook. The cookbook by Jessica Harlan and Kelley Sparwasser joins “The Quintessential Quinoa Cookbook,” by Wendy Polisi, also released in April, as further proof of the growing popularity of the “Andean power food” among American consumers.

Quinoa is a tiny, tasty seed that grows well in the dry, mountainous climate of several South American countries. Often mistaken for a grain, it is actually the seed of a chenopod plant and a cousin to beets, chard and spinach. Bolivia exports 30 million tons of it annually and produces about half of the world’s supply, followed by Peru and Ecuador.

Named a superfood by the United Nations for its high-protein nutritional profile, quinoa also includes a healthy dose of vitamins B and E, minerals such as calcium and iron, antioxidants and an array of phyto-nutrients. It is one of those rare plant-based foods that supplies a complete protein — it contains all nine of the amino acids that humans need. The World Health Organization says the quality of protein in quinoa equals that found in milk, without the fat.

That’s what made quinoa an essential food in the diets of people in Bolivia and other places where the ancient, grain-like food has been eaten for centuries. It is eaten like rice and other grains and starches, or mixed with milk and sugar as a breakfast food. Introduced to mainstream U.S. markets in the 1990s, demand for quinoa has skyrocketed as American appetites for it have grown.

Quinoa appeals to U.S. consumers not only for its nutrition but also because of the way it is grown — largely organically and through fair-trade associations — by family farmers.

The rising global demand has increased the price of quinoa about 25-fold since the early 1980s, which has brought both prosperity and problems to its South American growers.

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Because of the price of quinoa, there has been recent violence over arable land there and environmental and cultural concerns about increased production that may threaten the way quinoa has been cultivated for centuries.

Others worry the high prices and rush to export threatens supplies of quinoa for poorer Andeans, who are substituting cheaper, less nutritious foods such as white rice for the nutrient-rich quinoa in their own diets.

The price of white quinoa, the most common of its 1,500 varieties, has at least tripled in the past five years, rising to about $7 per pound at Breadroot Co-op last year before returning to just under $4 per pound as supply improved recently. More exotic varieties, including red, black and rainbow, still sell for nearly $9 per pound.

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Roberts said white quinoa is still a nutritional bargain at $3.89 per pound, especially for people who want to eat vegan or gluten-free.

Quinoa triples in volume when cooked. Co-op members can purchase white quinoa in 25- and 50-pound bags for as little as $2.59 per pound.

He expects supply to catch up with demand as South American farmers increase production and other countries begin to grow it.

Contact Mary Garrigan at 394-8424 or mary.garrigan@rapidcityjournal.com

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