Quinoa - Health Food or Health Fad?
I sometimes notice with health trends that the health benefits become exaggerated. And this seems to be the case with quinoa. When I had my shop I saw the price of an already expensive grain keep getting more expensive and to my amazement customers kept buying it. The health benefits seemed to justify the price. I also began to wonder what was happening to the countries where this grain is grown, could the farmers growing it and the locals still afford to buy it or was it beyond their pockets?
So I did a little digging to find out if quinoa is all it is cracked up to be. I remember first hearing about quinoa when I studied nutritional therapy 16 years ago. Then it was seen as a new exotic gluten free option, there was a lot of fuss over how you pronounce it and how you prepare it.
Quinoa began it’s rise to fame, as a health food, in the beginning it could only be found in health shops so therefore the assumption was that it must be really healthy. Rather than serve another dull gluten free rice salad you could now impress your family and friends with a more interesting quinoa salad. Recipe books and magazines started to extensively feature this grain and so the trend began. Personally I still like a good rice salad.
But quinoa’s real rise in popularity is closely tied to the rise in popularity of following a vegan diet. One of the main concerns for vegans is ensuring adequate plant based protein. For vegans quinoa became seen as an important grain to eat not only because it was “high in protein” but more importantly because it was a “complete protein.”
Is Quinoa really high in Protein?
Even though quinoa is classed as a grain it is actually a seed. But when compared to other seeds it is lower in protein than other seeds. When compared to other grains it doesn’t really impress. Now I spent a bit of time looking at charts of grains and the amount of protein in each one and believe me no two charts gave me the same figures. But everywhere I looked quinoa was never number one for protein. Usually amaranth, oats and teff did better than quinoa. With buckwheat, sorghum and millet comparable to quinoa.
Quinoa along with amaranth, teff and buckwheat are sometimes called seed-grains because while we consider them to be grains they are in fact the seeds of plants and do not come from the same botanical family as the more common grass grains of barley, wheat and oats. What all these seed grains have in common is that they are gluten free which has also increased their popularity.
But Quinoa is a Complete Protein
Quinoa may not be high in protein but some would argue it is a complete protein. The complete protein hypothesis has been doing the rounds as long as people have chosen to be vegetarian and vegan. All plants where seen as an inferior source of protein because they did not contain all 9 essential amino acids that the body needs and cannot make. So protein combining became the buzz word. Having your brown rice with beans at one meal was a must do so you could get all your essential amino acids. Quinoa was a plant that had all essential amino acids. In fact current research shows that all plants are complete proteins.
And our bodies are such amazing complex systems that they can sort themselves out. The body maintains a pool of free amino acids that it gets from the diet and it can draw from this when there are any amino acids shortfalls. Although protein combining isn’t necessary, having a diet with plenty of variety is important. We should never have to resort to reductionist food philosophies as long as we respect the complexity of the body and provide it with the abundance of what is found in nature.
How sustainable is your Quinoa habit?
When the price of quinoa started to rise there were concerns that the communities in the Andes that grew quinoa would no longer be able to afford quinoa for themselves and that this would lead to food insecurity. In fact subsequent studies have shown that Andean farmers in Bolivia and Chile have actually benefitted from the price increase as they were paid more for their crops and they could afford to buy a larger variety of foods for their families.
The concern now is more to do with environmental degradation and competition. Farmers in coastal areas of Chile are growing quinoa intensively and can sell it for less than the small scale farmers can. Traditional farmers are now more likely to grow one of the 20 more sought after varieties of quinoa. There are 3,000 varieties of quinoa so the concerns is that some of the less popular varieties may disappear. Before small farmers practiced mixed farming now they only planting quinoa because it is so popular and easy to sell. Mono-agriculture depletes the soil and farmers have reduced their lima herds so there is less manure for the quinoa crop. There is concern that these new farming practices will lead to poor soil quality.
More good plant choices
If you are vegan or vegetarian or just want to get good affordable sources of plant protein then you may want to consider trying some of the following: teff, oats, buckwheat, chia seeds, hemp seeds, pumpkinseeds, peas, lentils, beans and of course leafy greens. But topping them all by a long way is spirulina, although this is more a food supplement than a food it is a great way to supplement a vegan diet or to take as a general food supplement.
So if you have a varied diet made up of many different plant foods you can probably ditch the quinoa for something cheaper. But by all means keep the quinoa if you love it.