The Cost of Costco Quinoa

by Anne Bennett on March 20, 2011

Health food aficionados will be happy to know that quinoa is now available nationwide at Costco. But its availability in the US does not come without a cost.

First of all, what is quinoa? It’s the edible seed from a flowering plant related to beets and spinach. In America we consider quinoa to be either a grain or a cereal; it is neither. It is a pseudo-cereal, which means that it resembles cereal grains but is not a member of the grass family.

Bolivian quinoa harvesters

So nutritious is quinoa’s balance of protein and amino acids that decades ago NASA considered it as a food to be used in long-duration manned spaceflights. Thus began quinoa’s road to world-wide popularity, and the aforementioned cost.

The New York Times reports that quinoa, which is cultivated high in the Andes mountains of Bolivia, has become so successful a crop that its price has tripled in the last five years. Consequently, native Bolivians who have been eating it for hundreds of years can no longer afford it. They are replacing quinoa with cheaper, less nutritious foods such as noodles and white rice.

An unsurprising repercussion: young people in Bolivia are fast developing a preference for these cheap, starchy staples as well as for other widely available Western processed foods. They would now rather down a  Coca Cola than a more nutritious, traditional drink made with quinoa flour and sugar.

The result? Although the Bolivian government has witnessed an overall decline in malnutrition in recent years, chronic malnutrition has begun to rise again in children in quinoa-growing areas. Another cultural downside, where processed food takes hold, obesity follows.

Bolivian dog guarding his Coca Cola stash

It seems that no matter where you live in the world, junk food has an irresistible allure that is ubiquitous and unremitting.

I am thus ambivalent when it comes to the ready availability of quinoa at my local Costco, and I feel vaguely guilty even considering buying it. From a global marketing perspective, does this make sense? I don’t know. Please, someone with more economic expertise in these matters, educate me.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Ryan Stapleton September 10, 2011 at 4:23 pm

Thanks for this post. I was googling “costco quinoa” because I was at the store and wanted to know if i could buy it here. Anyway, I have a degree in economics and I thought I’d chime in. Concern for Bolivians well-being is admirable, but there are myriad factors affecting the availability of quinoa (and other nutrious ingredients Bolivians need). The reason for the price increase is the fact that demand for quinoa has surpassed availability, and at the moment, Bolivia has a large share of (if not partial monopoly over- I don’t know) of the world’s supply. Let’s not forget how stimulative that fact is to the Bolivian economy. And with the price and demand so high, it’s only a matter of time before quinoa starts cropping up (literally) across the globe to compete for that share of the quinoa market. As of now, I’m sure Bolivian farmers are extremely pleased with the extra income. If you want to blame someone for the lack of nutritious foods for Bolivians, I’d look at corrupt government agencies and bureaucracies preventing the economic station of individuals from increasing and developing.

Cesar Duenas December 4, 2011 at 8:19 pm

You might also consider buying a “fair trade” product. Ive seen “Alter Eco Fair Trade” quinoa at Amazon. Quinoa is harvested in many Andean countries including Peru and Chile. At this point it seems most US product I’ve seen is coming from Bolivia. I agree in general with the points the Ryan S. made above.

ANNA December 26, 2011 at 2:58 pm


Alan April 19, 2014 at 11:37 pm

Costco used to have the best quinoa, the white version. Now they have red and white version which is good but not as good. Anyone know if there are any Costco’s selling the white version?

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