Quinoa – the new fad

Andean countries - the origin of quinoa (Photo: Nathan)

Andean countries – the origin of quinoa (Photo: Nathan)

You have probably tried quinoa by now, the new food for the health conscious consumer. That is in the Western World though – quinoa has been around since ancient times and been much appreciated in Andean countries. Now the United Nations has made 2013 the ‘International Year of the Quinoa’ to raise awareness of the nutritional, economic, environmental and cultural values of the crop.

Quinoa is a grain-like crop grown primarily for its edible seeds. It is a pseudocereal rather than a true cereal, or grain, as it is not a member of the true grass family. It is mainly cultivated by farmers in the Andean highlands. It was first domesticated by the Incas around 3,000 years ago. Bolivia and Peru account for more than half of the annual 70,000 tons of quinoa produced in the world with smaller contributions from Colombia and Ecuador. Cultivation is expanding to include Paraguay, Australia, Kenya, India, North America and Europe, although still most of the crop is farmed through traditional means in the Andean region.

Quinoa was of great importance in the diet of pre-Columbian Andean civilisations, secondary only to the potato. It is highly valued for its nutritional qualities. The protein quality and quantity in quinoa seed is often superior to those of more common cereal grains. It is higher in lysine than wheat, and the amino acid content of quinoa seed is considered well-balanced for human and animal nutrition. It includes all nine essential amino acids. Quinoa contains almost twice as much dietary fibre as most other grains and is high in phosphorus, magnesium and iron. It is also a source of calcium, and thus useful for vegans and those who are lactose intolerant. Quinoa is gluten-free and considered easy to digest.

Quinoa in its natural state has a coating of bitter-tasting saponins, making it unpalatable. Most quinoa sold commercially has been processed to remove this coating. This bitterness has beneficial effects during cultivation, as the plant is unpopular with birds and therefore requires minimal protection.

Quinoa salad (Photo: Karen and Brad Emerson)

Quinoa salad (Photo: Karen and Brad Emerson)

Quinoa is used to make flour, soup, breakfast cereal, and alcohol. Most quinoa used by the health-conscious Western population has been sold as whole grain that is cooked separately as rice or in combination dishes such as pilaf. However, quinoa flour works well as a starch extender when combined with wheat flour or grain, or corn meal, in making biscuits, bread, and processed food.

In addition to the general good it is supposed to do for your body, there is talk that quinoa may actually directly benefit your skin and hair. The high levels of magnesium might promote skin elasticity and regenerate skin cells, while vitamin B2 (riboflavin) could build up connective tissues that is integral to cell repair. But so far there is no consistent proof for such claims. As a matter of fact the European Food Safety Authority in an opinion published in 2009 on the effects of quinoa on hair growth stated that a cause and effect relationship could not be established between the consumption of quinoa and maintenance of normal hair.

But everyone to their own beliefs.

There might be downsides to all the good news. The growing global demand for quinoa by health food enthusiasts isn’t just raising prices for the Andean “super grain” and living standards among Bolivian farmers. The scramble to grow more is prompting Bolivian farmers to abandon traditional land management practices, endangering the fragile ecosystem of the arid highlands. And there is some thought that the high prices might encourage export and deplete access to the food by the native population.

However, the United Nations has hailed the ancient grain quinoa as a valuable and extraordinary crop that can help in the push forward on food and nutrition security. It hopes that increased production of and access to nutritious foods like quinoa will aid efforts to reduce world hunger by half.

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