The grain of nutritionists’ dreams. Quinoa seems to be everywhere these days. From quinoa salads to healthy low-calorie breakfast and quinoa sushi. Because of its high nutritious value and importance in the highlands of South America, quinoa bears the name “vegetable caviar” and “Inca rice.” People who live in the mountains and valleys of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Chile have been cultivating quinoa for 5,000 years. A staple food for the Inca people, its significance remains unchanged for their descendants. The hype over the nutritious properties of quinoa and its ‘superfood’ status led to a huge increase in its consumption and brought many changes to the lives of people who initially found the benefits of consuming it. No doubt, it is a great nutrition source. But is it as ethical to consume by western nations as it is healthy?
Nutrition Facts and Health Effects
High protein content
Rich in high-quality protein, essential amino acids, fiber and minerals, quinoa is a nutritious bomb masked in a tiny seed. The quinoa seeds contain between 8% and 22% protein – more than common cereals such as rice, wheat, and barley. However, it constitutes less than 50% of the protein content of most legumes. (1)
All essential amino acids
Quinoa protein is a ‘complete protein’, with all seven essential amino acids – again beating all common cereals (2). It is exceptionally rich in lysine – an amino acid scarce in most vegetables. Quinoa also makes a good addition to legumes, usually with low methionine and cystine content.
Another good news – quinoa is a gluten-free grain. A nutritional, easy-to-prepare, tasty food source for people with gluten intolerance.
Rich in vitamins and minerals
Quinoa boasts a relatively high quantity of vitamins and minerals. Its seed lipids are incredible edible vegetable oil, similar in the fatty-acid composition to soybean oil. It is rich in calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc – richer than common cereals. The iron content is particularly high. Quinoa has more riboflavin (B2 ) and α-tocopherol than rice, barley, or wheat. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) also confirms that quinoa seeds have high-quality proteins and higher levels of energy calcium, phosphorus, iron, fiber, and B-vitamins than barley, oats, rice, corn, or wheat (Dini et al. 2005).
The majority of studies focused on the healthy benefits of consuming quinoa are of poor quality and inconclusive. They suggest quinoa decreases weight gain, improves lipid profile and the capacity to respond to oxidative stress. These positive health effects are due to the presence of saponins, protein, and 20-hydroxyecdysone. The role of quinoa as an antioxidant is still unclear and further research is to prove it.(3)
Quinoa – Healthy, Trendy or Simply Unethical?
No doubt, quinoa has nutritional properties that generally justify all the craze about it. Especially in the context of an ever-growing search for longer life expectancy, higher quality of life, healthy lifestyle and wellbeing. Demand is steadily growing in the developed world, inch by inch, bite by bite, diet by diet. We start consuming more and more of this exceptionally functional food.
In the meantime, in South America. Quinoa has been cultivated for about 5000 years in the Andean region of South America, native to Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, and Peru. They are still the main quinoa producers – 94% of total global quinoa production for 2015. The United States, on the other hand, is the world’s largest quinoa importer, as well as Peru’s main export destination.
Western demand led to higher prices for the “super grain”
Demand led to a spike in quinoa prices in 2013, followed by a sudden decrease starting in 2014. The price fell by 40% between the beginning of 2015 and the middle of the year. (4) Though, in 2015 Peru marked a record level of quinoa production – a 163% increase over 2010. Price fluctuations inevitably brought many changes in the economies of the producing countries, as well as in the well-being of their people.
Food security at risk?
In 2013, Joanna Blythman in an article for the Guardian defended a position that western demand led to higher prices for the “super grain”, which meant poor people in the region could no longer afford to buy quinoa. The article implied that quinoa’s new found status as an international “superfood” was “driving poverty” and putting food security at risk.
On the other hand, the findings of a survey which took place in 2014-15 of 150 Peruvian households initiated and conducted by the International Trade Centre (ITC) throw a different light on the issue. The study shows that higher prices driven by consumer demand in Europe and the United States in the period 2013-14 benefited Peruvian smallholder farmers and rural communities. Conversely, the fall in prices since 2014 resulted in these rural households having less income, thus even reducing their food intake.
The study led by Marc Bellemare and Seth Gitter estimated that a 1-percent increase in the purchase price of quinoa is associated with a 0.07 percent increase in the welfare of quinoa-consuming households, for both farmers and consumers only.
“It is useful to know that the claim that rising quinoa prices were hurting those who had traditionally produced and consumed it— those households in our sample that produce quinoa—was patently false.”
Another study conducted by Andrew Stevens, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, focused on the Puno region in the Andes. The latter grows more than 80 percent of the quinoa in Peru. His analysis found that across Peru as a whole, people ate less quinoa. 6.07 kilograms were consumed in 2004, 4.09 kilograms – in 2012, as a result of higher prices. People in Puno, however, consumed slightly more quinoa — 23.62 kilograms versus 22.22 kilograms — despite the price increases, which were even greater there. Overmore, in the Puno region of Peru, quinoa represents at most 4% of the average household’s food expenditure.
It seems the claim that by eating so much quinoa we do harm to poor South American people has been busted. Yet, not completely. There are issues of concern. Export demand has caused farmers to focus on very few of the thousands of varieties of quinoa. The result – diversity is at risk now. Also, deterioration of soil is reported since many beneficial sustainable practices and cultivation methods have been left behind due to the need to increase production. (5).
Last, but not least, the sudden drop in quinoa prices after the steep rise in 2013 can adversely affect the welfare of quinoa farmers and traditional consumers no less than its rise. The cost of quinoa started to sink in February 2014. By late 2015 it was back where it was in 2012.
It seems like our ‘discovery’ of quinoa, new eating preferences and healthy lifestyle did change the way people from Peru, Bolivia or Chile live. Allegedly in a positive way, at least initially, stimulating agricultural investment, the welfare of people, especially of local quinoa farmers. However, high demand has stimulated competition in other parts of the world and in South America. This caused a drop in prices and encouraged many unwanted agricultural practices that might have increase production but lower quality and decrease diversity.
Do you need to feel guilty for taking advantage of the great qualities of this “super grain”? The answer is complex. The act of buying and consuming quinoa itself is neither bad nor vicious. It’s all about the sourcing. It doesn’t hurt making sure you’re buying from Fair Trade certified companies. You could also look for companies that say right on the packaging that they work closely with farmers on the ground to make sure their quinoa is organic, sustainably and ethically produced.