Kaniwa: The Long Forgotten Royal Food

Kaniwa The Long Forgotten Royal Food
Kaniwa The Long Forgotten Royal Food

Kaniwa, also known as Qaniwa, Qanawa or Qanawi, is about 1/3rd the size of the popular quinoa. It is often considered as a weedy variety of quinoa or as ‘baby quinoa’, but chromosomal studies have confirmed that the two belong to separate species complexes (kaniwa has a chromosomal designation of 2n = 2x = 18; quinoa has 2n = 4x = 36). Read the study here.

At the time of the Conquest, kaniwa grain was an important food in the high Andes. It is still widely grown, but only in the Peruvian and Bolivian altiplano. Most kaniwa is consumed by the families that grow it, but some can be bought in the Andean markets, especially near Puno. However, during Inca times, it was reportedly restricted to the Inca emperor himself and to his court; the general population was forbidden to eat this ‘royal food’. (Gade, 1970).

The protein content of kaniwa is extremely high which combined with its exceptional amino-acid balance, notably lysine, isoleucine, and tryptophan make it a good replacement for meat.


Although kaniwa produces a cereal-like seed, it is not a true cereal but a broad-leaved plant. When harvested, the seed is actually a hard-walled fruit (achene) containing the true seed. The seed comes in two colors: black and dark brown. The leaves are especially high in calcium, and the plant is valued for soil improvement.


Alternate Source of Meat

Kaniwa seed adds high-quality protein to meat-scarce diets. This is particularly important in the Andes, as well as in other tropical highlands, as millions of people survive primarily on starchy tubers. The protein content of the grain is extremely high which combined with its exceptional amino-acid balance, notably lysine, isoleucine, and tryptophan making it a good replacement for meat. It also has a carbohydrate content of nearly 60 percent and a vegetable oil content of 8 percent.


Kaniwa has been described as a grain that has sustained many Indians for thousands of generations, in one of the most difficult agricultural regions. It often grows in an extreme highland environment where crops like wheat, rye and corn grow unreliably or not at all due to the harsh cold temperature. Even hardy crops like barley and quinoa cannot provide yield dependably, at the altitude that kaniwa can grow. For instance, the average temperature around the native areas that kaniwa grows is less than 10°C, where frost occurs during at least 9 months a year including the height of growing season. Kaniwa possibly may resist cold because a special anatomical structure protects its flowers from damage at temperatures as low as −3°C.


It often serves as a ‘safety-net’, back-up crop for farmers in the high Andes because of its extremely hardy nature. It is perhaps more resistant than any other grain crop to a combination of frost, drought, salt, and pests, and few other food plants are as easy to grow or demand such little care. The hermaphrodite flowers are inconspicuous, and are formed along the forks of the stem. Because at fertility the flower is closed, kaniwa is almost exclusively self-pollinating.

Kaniwa plant is not completely domesticated, and it often grows almost like a weed, reseeding itself year after year. Farmers encourage it to grow in their plots of potatoes, quinoa, or barley. Its seeds, unlike those of quinoa contain little or no saponins and can be eaten without elaborate processing. However, Kaniwa seeds are tedious to prepare, for it is enclosed in a papery covering (a remnant of the flower called a “perigonium”) that must be removed. The covering is loosened by soaking, following which it is rubbed off.


Benefits of Kaniwa

1. High Protein: It’s a great vegetarian source of (complete) protein, contains a whopping 16% protein compared to 13% in quinoa. It also contains significant amounts of all essential amino acids.
2. High Iron: Contains about 60 percent of RDA compared to quinoa’s 15.
3. Gluten-Free: It’s packed with B vitamins, fiber, phosphorus, calcium and zinc making it a great choice for people with celiac disease.
4. High Antioxidants: Both in extrudate and bran form, they contain a high amount of anti-oxidants, especially flavonoids like Isorhamnetin and Quercetin. It contains more flavonoids than quinoa. Flavonoids provide anti-aging benefits for the skin, prevent cardiovascular diseases, inhibit the growth of certain bacteria and viruses, and reduce the risk of certain inflammatory diseases.
5. High Omega-6: About 43% of the fatty acids in kaniwa are Omega-6.
6. Zero Saponin: It doesn’t need rinsing like quinoa which contains saponin, the coating which gives a sticky, soapy and sometimes bitter flavour when not rinsed properly. However, quinoa brought to the market has already been rinsed of much of its saponins, as otherwise it would be quite unpalatable (this procedure is done with a strong alkaline solution).

The following table provides information about the approximate nutrient composition of kaniwa, both in terms of absolute amounts (in grams or milligrams) and as Percent Daily Values (in brackets). The values are based on a 100-gram (3.5 oz) portion of kaniwa seeds.



.Protein: 15.4 g (31%)
.Crude fat:6.2 g
.Carbohydrates: 61 g (20%)
.Crude fiber: 7.7 g (31%)


.Thiamin (B1): 0.7 mg (48%)
.Riboflavin (B2): 0.4 mg (25%)
.Niacin (B3): 1.4 mg (7%)



.Calcium: 134 mg (13%)
.Iron: 15 mg (86%)
.Phosphorus: 424 mg (42%)

[Photo Credit: http://www.provechoperu.com]