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Wed July 17, 2013
Busting The Quinoa Myth
Originally published on Wed July 17, 2013 3:05 pm
If you’re part of the health-conscious foodie crowd, there’s a good chance you eat quinoa.
Five years ago, a lot of people couldn’t pronounce it and had never heard of it. But a boom in the popularity of this so-called Andean “super-grain” is pushing demand sky-high.
As Americans eat more of it, there are suggestions that people who live closest to quinoa — the indigenous people of the Andes — are being deprived of the food because the price has gone so high.
But NPR food and health correspondent Allison Aubrey says that’s actually a myth.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
If you are part of the health-conscious foodie crowd, there's a good chance you eat quinoa, or quinoa as I used to pronounce it. Five years ago, a lot of people couldn't pronounce it either. They'd never heard of it. But a boom in the use of this so-called Andean super-grain is pushing demands sky-high. And as Americans eat more quinoa, there are suggestions that people who live closest to it in South America are eating less of it because it's too expensive. Is that true? Should we stop eating quinoa so those who grow it can eat it?
NPR's food and health correspondent Allison Aubrey joins us to answer that question. But first, Allison, for those who are not familiar with it, I've got some salads right in front of me. So here's some quinoa salad. It's this sort of nutty grain but also some sliced veggies. So you carry on while I taste this.
YOUNG: What is so important about quinoa?
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Well, quinoa has a lot going for it. It's thought of as a grain, and it cooks like a grain, very similar to rice. But it's really more of a seed. It's small. It packs a lot of punch when it comes to good nutrition. So it has decent amounts of fiber and a lot of phytonutrients, and that's just sort of fancy term meaning beneficial plant compound. And it's also fairly high in protein.
And here's the big thing. You'll hear it referred to as being a complete protein. And this means it's got all of the essential amino acids that the body needs. So it makes it a good replacement for meat, and this is very appealing to anyone who's trying to eat less meat either for environmental or ethical or health reasons.
YOUNG: You've explained this further that, for instance, when you have rice and beans, the beans are often - because the rice in itself isn't enough protein, but with quinoa you get more.
AUBREY: That's right. When you hear that quinoa is a complete protein, what that means it's got this full complement of the essential amino acids that the body can't make but needs. So often when we eat rice, we'll have rice with beans because it's the combination of those two things that make the complete protein, while quinoa does that all on its own. That's why it's got some good appeal here.
YOUNG: Yeah. Well, OK, so what is true about the fact that more and more people are eating quinoa? You can get it in cereals too, and that that demand has pushed up prices and that maybe quinoa farmers in South America can't afford it.
AUBREY: Well, it's kind of a complicated story. Quinoa is typically grown by small farmers up in the highlands in countries including Bolivia and Peru. And what's happened over the last five to 10 years is that as demand has escalated, these farmers have started to grow a lot more of the crop, and they're also selling it for higher prices. There are estimates that between 2006 and 2013, quinoa prices tripled. And so this means that farmers, by and large, are making more money. Their incomes are going up, which is a good thing.
But over the last year, there have also been news reports suggesting that there's a downside here. That basically all of the global demand for quinoa, largely being driven by us, is depriving local people in South America of an important nutrient-dense food.
YOUNG: Well, is that true?
AUBREY: Well, it's complicated. I mean food prices in general have gone up around the world over the last several years, and that includes prices in places like Bolivia. The AP has reported that quinoa costs about three times as much as white rice in markets in La Paz. That's Bolivia's big city. So, yes, of course, this is going to put quinoa out of reach for many of the poor people in the city. But out in the rural areas of Bolivia, the picture is a little bit different, especially for quinoa farmers.
I spoke to a distributor of quinoa, a man named Edouard Rollet, who runs a company called Alter Eco Foods. They buy quinoa from small farmer cooperatives in Bolivia and sell it here. And he told me that when he visits these farms up in the highlands, the farmers that he's buying from are still setting aside about 10 percent of their crop. Here's what he told me when I talked to him on the phone that they're basically stacking it in bags in their living rooms or in their homes so that they can eat it - so that they can eat it themselves throughout the year.
EDOUARD ROLLET: So the farmers who work with the other farmers who have been eating quinoa traditionally have been eating quinoa. And on top of that, because they get much more revenue, then they were able to now afford tomatoes and salads and veggies and food that they weren't able to afford before.
AUBREY: So he's basically making the case here that many of the people who have grown and relied on this food for thousands of years are still eating plenty of it.
YOUNG: And meanwhile, you tell us other countries are starting to produce quinoa. So that will do what? I mean, if there's more flooding the market, maybe the price will go down.
AUBREY: That's the thought. I mean, supply and demand are kind of out of whack now because, you know, demand has risen much faster than supply. So in addition to increased production in Bolivia, Peru is also planting and producing more quinoa. Ecuador is producing quinoa. And there's also production outside of South America. Farmers from Canada to Australia are planting quinoa. And here in the U.S., as we have reported on our blog, The Salt, there is a small amount of production in Colorado.
YOUNG: Why Colorado?
AUBREY: Well, it's really the Rocky Mountains that might be attracting the people growing it there. It's another area where it's high elevation, where you tend to get the cooler nights and the warmer days, and that seems to be the conditions that quinoa thrives best. But there are people who are convinced it will grow well here and grow well in lots of places. And it's fair to say that there's a lot of experimentation, a lot of interest in breeding this crop and a lot of interest in expanding production.
YOUNG: Allison Aubrey, NPR's food and health correspondent, contributed to The Salt blog. We link you at hereandnow.org. Allison, always great to talk to you. Thank you.
AUBREY: Thank you, Robin.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
And, Robin, I'm guessing that you are one of the few people who loves some good healthy quinoa, and then goes and downs a bottle of Coca-Cola.
YOUNG: OK. And your question is what?
YOUNG: You know, it is awful. But I'm one-a-day, I hide it from children, and I am cutting back.
HOBSON: I don't know about one-a-day but maybe.
YOUNG: OK. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.