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Quinoa: Trendy or Tragic?

Posted by Shane Moran on

It's safe to say that quinoa will be crowned hipster food of the decade after it rocketed to the top of public consciousness in America a few years ago.  Touted as an amazing superfood, everyone from soccer moms to elite athletes have been shoveling it down their throats in an effort to be healthier. While this may be a trend, quinoa is quite a bit healthier than your average western grain (though it's technically a seed).  This is a good thing right?  Not for everyone.

Quinoa is native to Bolivia, Chile and Peru where it has been consumed for 5,000 years.  When the Spanish arrived, like so much else, quinoa nearly disappeared. While it survived in the high mountains, it wasn't discovered by Westerners again until the 1970s but remained obscure in the United States until about a decade ago.  Like maca, quinoa was branded a "lost crops of the Incas" and with it's amazing balance of amino acids, exotic name and flavor, it quickly grew in popularity among the health-conscious and foodies, alike. Global quinoa prices soared as demand rose.

Tripling in price from 2008-2015, quinoa was a boom crop for farmers in Bolivia, Peru and Chile but with this came unforeseen consequences.  While income increased so did the price of this cultural staple.  So much so that many, like in poorer Bolivia where consumption dropped 34%, could no longer afford to buy quinoa in stores.  It was much cheaper to buy pasta, white rice and white bread than this more nutritionally-dense traditional food of the Andes.  Combine this with the fact that many younger people no longer wanted to eat quinoa as standards of living increased.  Preferring to eat a more western diet of white pastas and breads.  Ironic, isn't it? While affluent Americans and Europeans were paying an arm and a leg for quinoa, shunning white bread, many Bolivians rising out of poverty preferred American junk food.

Without quinoa, chronic malnutrition in children has risen in quinoa producing areas (though it has dropped nationally). Swapping out a balanced source of protein, carbs, fat, vitamins, minerals and fiber for white pasta, which is devoid of most useful nutrients, is having an effect, in my opinion.  The standard American diet (SAD) is not something we should be proud to export but so many around the world aspire to attain it.  Most indigenous foods, provided you can get enough of them, are healthier and cheaper than a typical Western diet where lifestyle diseases like diabetes and obesity are reducing life expectancy for the first time in 100 years.

Global demand for new, interesting, tasty and healthy foods can have both positive and negative impacts on poor populations but I don't see this ending anytime soon. Companies are constantly trying to find and/or predict the next quinoa.  Will it be teff? A seed native to Ethiopia and one of the first plants to ever be domesticated (I can see the hipter branding already). Food and culture are forever intertwined but as our world gets ever smaller and connected the two are more volatile than ever before.