Quinoa: Ancient grain, modern problem

Food fads come and go. Fondue, cupcakes, heck even gelatin salads- at some point these were the flavour of the month (pun intended). And food fads are great- they bring a new food or recipe into our repertoire, giving us something to get excited over and try. Isn’t that what’s so great about food? These days, where there is more and more pressure to have our meals plated up to be “Instagram worthy” (and until Masterchef, who even said “plated up”?), in an age where every second person’s day on a plate is posted online, food fads are magnified. No longer is it enough to go over to Sally’s on Friday night to try out her new fondue set. These days, we’ll go to three cafes over a weekend and post our meals online to share either a. how healthy we’re being (hello, acai bowls), or b. prove we’re up with the latest trend (mmmm, cronuts. Or is it now cruffins?). Food fads have continued to come and go over the decades, but how we embrace these has slowly evolved. And this is not all bad- how lucky are we that we can discover new foods, recipes and a cafe’s latest menu at the click of a button? But there’s a side to food fads that we’re not so well informed on. 

In an exotic corner of the world, full of sexy accents, countries such as Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia and Chile have been using quinoa as a dietary staple for thousands of years. Being a pseudocereal, quinoa is not in the same family as wheat and as a result has nutritional properties that wheat could only dream of. It contains all nine essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein that our body cannot make and hence need to get from food) and has more fibre and protein than couscous (made from wheat).

Over the past decade, the western world has gotten wind about this gem of a grain and quinoa is dominating our supermarket shelves and plates. The fact that it’s gluten free has made it Queen Bee of the grains. Supermarket products now have quinoa mixed in with everything from rice and frozen vegetables, bread, breakfast cereals, crackers and even muesli bars and chips. It’s not that our diets were severely lacking in protein and quinoa has saved the day, however it can increase the nutrient density of basic foods (however, when the quinoa crackers have only 3.5% quinoa and the expensive quinoa muesli bars have even less than this, the price density per quinoa grain really isn’t worth it). The popularity of quinoa in non-indigenous regions of the world caused the crop price of quinoa to triple between 2006 and 2013. This has had pros and cons. Higher prices make it harder for locals in South America, people who have relied on it for thousands of years, to purchase, increasing food insecurity in an already poor population. However it also brings an income for farmers and enables many to return to working the land to feed this need. Essentially, if a South American family consumes more quinoa than it produces, our recent obsession is going to cause them harm. If a family produces more than it consumes, their pockets will benefit. 

A somewhat similar price impact was seen last year, thanks to Paleo, a close relative of other fads of the past, such as Atkins, Dukan and Scarsdale. Not happy with the humble spud or a bowl of rice, it called on cauliflower to replace these staples. As a result, cauliflower production in Australia has grown over the past decade. Last year, it grew to such an extent that demand far outweighed supply and the humble cauliflower sold for $7 a head. The same happened in the US, which experienced a cauliflower shortage due to its sudden popularity and supply difficulties from cold weather in some growing regions.

So what’s my point? It’s not that we shouldn’t embrace new foods and make a few food swaps to increase diversity in our day to day meals. It’s not that we shouldn’t try food substitutions to alter the nutrition or taste of our meals. Trust me, I’ve given in to the cauliflower craze and cauliflower pizza is currently my dish of the month. It’s that food is more than what goes into our mouths. Our choices at the supermarket and the food fad we choose to follow affects the lives of people whose job it is to make sure we have enough on our plate. And, despite what supermarkets want us to believe, we shouldn’t expect an endless supply of any ingredient available at our fingertips. Because it needs to come from somewhere, and if our demand bumps up the price, it affects more than us at the checkout. And more importantly, there is no food God. There is no one food that we need to pile high in our trolleys to impart all of it’s superpower nutrients onto us. So add the quinoa and cauli, but keep the rice and the potato if you like that too. Moderation, folks. Problemo solved. 

Ps. In Support of Latino farmers worldwide, I developed the most tasty Quinoa, Zucchini, Sundried Tomato and Feta Muffins. They make a great lunchbox/ grown-up work lunch option and leave you feeling satisfied thanks to the abundance of protein and fibre in them.