By: Alvaro Chocano

The story of quinoa in the US is an interesting one.  Its progression over the past couple of decades can even be called transformative. This tiny grain –which is actually a seed- has made a huge impact on the market. At first, it was an insider’s secret in small health circles in the US, then ‘discovered’ and became trendy, with chefs adding it to their menus, supermarkets stocking their shelves with bags of it, nutritionists were recommending it to their clients.  Quinoa went from being sold by the pound to being incorporated in almost everything today, breakfast bars to chips and pasta, from frozen meals to features on fancy menus, even beverages!  It can be used in an incredible variety of ways. So the question is, why has quinoa become so popular and a staple food in people’s everyday lives?

There are several factors to consider for the quinoa evolution… or is it a revolution? According to Kristen Aiken, HuffPost Senior Food & Style Editor, there are three reasons. The first, its gluten-free. Many doctors started finding gluten allergies in their patients and recommended they switch to quinoa as the solution to these issues. Second, it is considered a “superfood” because it’s filled with nutrients. Last but certainly not least, it is a complete protein, having enough of each of the nine essential amino acids necessary in the human diet.  A food specialist at Goya Foods, echoed this, confirming that “it has become very trendy to avoid the four-whites: gluten, lactose, sugar and salt, and quinoa checks all the right boxes.” As a result, this makes quinoa very appealing to two key groups of the population: The Baby Boomers and Millennials.

Today, it is rare to go to a restaurant, from fast casual to Michelin star, that does not have quinoa on their menu, and not only segregated to the vegetarian section. Its mellow natural flavor and easy-on-the-digestion allow quinoa to be incorporated into almost any dish, both sweet and savory. This gives quinoa a great advantage because it makes it one of the most versatile ingredients out there, and can be enjoyed for breakfast, lunch, dinner and in-between.

Most consumers are not aware of quinoa’s Andean origin.  It is a big export primarily from Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, and has been consumed all over the world before coming to the US. Since the beginning, this superfood was destined to be an all-star. To really understand its popularity in the US, let’s take a deep dive into the Millennials vs. Baby Boomers debate, two key segments of the market that always provide a wealth of information (and a healthy dose of competition). Who introduced quinoa to the market?  Was it the Boomers, who were looking to change their diets for health reasons and could afford it back in the day? Or was it the Millennials who are always looking for new products, want healthy and convenient food and have immigrant influence?


Baby Boomers vs. Millennials

First, it’s important to define both generations. According to the US Census Bureau, Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964, ages 73 to 55 in 2019 while Millennials were born from 1981 to 1996, ages 38 to 21 in 2019.

According to several cited sources in articles and backed up by the U.S. Census Bureau, Millennials will outnumber Baby Boomers at some point this year. This is largely due to two reasons: immigrant millennials are still moving to the US and Baby Boomers are reaching the latter parts of their lives. According to The Pew Research Center, the Millennial population is estimated to peak in 2036 with 76.2 million, mainly because of immigrants, while the Baby Boomers peaked in 1999 with 78.8 million and their number has been on the decline since. This doesn’t necessarily signify a change in power just yet as the spending potential for Baby Boomers remains higher today. According to the U.S. News & World Report, Boomers control 70% of the country’s disposable income and spend $3.2 trillion a year.

So with all their spending power, advertisers only spend around 5%-10% of their advertising budget on the Boomers. This is due to the misconception that Boomers are lacking in tech knowledge, when in reality, they are also active on social media, email and other online avenues. More than half of this generation is on Facebook and they are considered the second highest users of the internet. Millennials also spend much of their time online and are deemed more susceptible to suggestions found there. Millennials represent the largest consumer group, the most diverse, the most influential and still the most tech savvy. This means that they are easier to reach, a driving factor when marketers are determining where their budgets should go, and also having a greater impact on encouraging them to change their consumption habits. An example of this is how the percentage of smokers dropped with Millennials. They rebelled against tobacco’s advertising of smoking as sexy and cool, while the Boomers quit when their doctors told them to decades later.

Consumption Patterns

Many people believe that Millennials and Boomers have different consumption patterns and while that may be true in certain markets, there are specific products that crossover and have great impact on both, such as quinoa. This is one of the biggest arguments as to why this super food has become so successful. According to Marianne Johnson, US Consumer Equity Analyst at Pictet Wealth Management, during the Millennial birth era, globalization expanded resulting in more exposure to different cultures, countries, people, customs and habits. This also means that Millennials are more open-minded and willing to try new things, which is a big factor in how new products are introduced to communities and the US in general. For example, 20 years ago, quinoa was not something that was common in supermarkets. Today not only is quinoa a staple in many diets, supermarket shelves, restaurants dishes, etc., but its nutritional value is also a main factor in its increased consumption rate. Though we still cannot refute the important role the Boomers had in the quinoa revolution, whether they know it or not.

While Millennials are always more eager to try new foods, Boomers are, in a way, forced to switch many of their habits by doctors and nutritionists who are suggesting changes in their diets as they age. According to Melissa Abbot, VP of Culinary Insights at the Hartman Group, at a presentation at the recent Fancy Food Show, this is the first time in history we have seen a generation approach food in this way. Boomers are transforming the way we used to think about these products that were once considered a Millennial-only trend. Boomers have driven much of what has been going on in terms of the fresh, less processed food movement, mainly because they have the money and power to do so.

On the other hand, while Millennials do strive for healthier food on the market, they also push for convenience and shelf-stability. Due to the increasing amount of time spent in the workforce and fast-paced lifestyles, such as short lunch times during office hours, Millennials are looking for products that they know won’t spoil so fast, are easy to prepare or even ready-to-eat and foods that will help them achieve a healthy balance. To obtain these 3 points is difficult but possible today.

Products that were once on the path of extinction have been updated and relevant again. For example, the grab-and-go format used at gas stations and convenience stores for hurried travelers. This has now expanded and upgraded to many other products, including quinoa, and can be found at every supermarket, gourmet shop and corner store. Places like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s sell cups-to-go and resealable portions of quinoa that can be easily opened and eaten on the spot, or microwaved, prepared by itself and a great variety of other ingredients and range of flavors. This is a perfect alternative to the usual junk food staples and just as easy to obtain, although in some preparations, more expensive.

For those who prefer to prepare their own meals, yet still like to save time, there’s the wealth of home delivery options, like Pea Pod, Fresh Direct and the higher-end delivery services that have sprung up in recent years, such as Blue Apron, all of whom use quinoa in their dishes. Since such programs pride themselves on convenience as well as nutrition, it makes sense quinoa is a prime ingredient.

According to Oliver Armstrong, Non-Perishable Grocery Buyer from Whole Foods Market, they have noticed that most of the quinoa brands at their store have expanded into different presentations, as they are always looking for a fresh, new ways to use quinoa, value-added.  While other brands have started incorporating quinoa into their own products because of its price and access to the mass markets. These efforts combined have resulted in quinoa going mainstream, along with the fact that it is a pure source of veggie protein, much like soy, and is close in flavor to rice except more nutritious.

Who wouldn’t enjoy a meal that’s gluten-free, meat-free, protein-rich, easily digestible, easily accessible, so versatile that all kinds of spices can play together… yet still tastes delicious?! Sign us up!