Thursday, July 11, 2013

2013: The Year of Quinoa

Have you heard of quinoa? If you're one of the millions that shops at specialty groceries like Trader Joe's or Whole Foods, you probably have. It's an ancient grain, grown mainly in South America, which has become quite trendy in the us in recent years, and as a result has gotten more expensive. Can we expect the price to go down as the quinoa supply increases to meet rising demand? Maybe, and maybe not.

An interesting post at the Washington Post Wonkblog (with graphs!) gets into the economic reasons why quinoa farmers are not cropping up all over the world. Mostly, there is an enormous startup cost to growing a new species of plant on a large scale, or in a new environment. Producing more quinoa in the US, for example, would require both. Getting more quinoa from the farmers in Bolivia and Peru that have been growing the grain for centuries isn't such an easy proposition, either, as these traditional farmers use older techniques and equipment that are not so easily scaled up as are industrial agricultural methods. A number of solutions are being studied, including new varieties of quinoa that can grow in different climates. These topics will be discussed at an upcoming quinoa symposium.

Why are we eating so much quinoa? Well, aside from the facts that we love novelty the latest health food fad, quinoa is tasty and actually healthy. It's about 14% protein, which is a lot for something we consider a grain (although not as high as beans), and it is a vegetarian source of "complete protein," meaning that it contains all the amino acids that our body cannot synthesize on its own and needs to get from our diet. It's also high in fiber and a number of other nutrients like B vitamins and iron. So, eat your quinoa, if you can afford it, and hope that in the future, there will be enough to go around.

Also, here is a fun quinoa bonus fact from Wikipedia: While quinoa is not a true grass like the cereal crops we think of as grains (wheat, rice, etc.), it is closely related to tumbleweeds.

A tip of the hat to Ragan for the article!
(Image: Quinoa, a Creative Commons 2.0 licensed image from Renee S. Suen's Photostream)

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