Quinoa Vegetable Salad

by Jenn on February 5, 2013

in Dairy Free,Gluten Free,Pastas and Grains,Salads,Vegetarian

quinoa salad

Let’s talk about quinoa.

Quinoa is a gluten free miracle “grain” and nutritional superfood that has garnered much attention lately – recently society has pretty much moved on from asking how to pronounce it (keen-wa or keen-oh-a?) to instead asking how to actually cook it.  Everywhere I look I see people singing its praises as we happily pay for a box of the pseudocereal’s protein packed seeds to use in place of more traditional grains that are off limits to gluten free folk.  Personally, I’ve never been a total convert.  I don’t mind quinoa, and think it’s very well suited to certain types of dishes, but I don’t jump up and down shouting from the rooftops about how amazing it is.  All the acclaim for its health benefits keep me buying it (just like I buy carrots and kale even though I despise them), hoping one day I’ll find that dish that lets me truly fall in love.

But quinoa’s story is more complex than it may at first seem.  Quinoa, a plant more closely related to beets and spinach than wheat, originates in the Andes mountains of South America – Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Argentina, and Chile.  Due to its long history as an integral part of the Andean food culture, deemed the “mother grain” by the Inca, today it is considered one of the “ancient grains” (other gluten free ancient grains include amaranth, millet, buckwheat, sorghum, chia and teff, even though not all these are technically grains, but some are also seeds like quinoa).  Quinoa outlived the Incan empire and survived the Spanish conquistadors, and today is an important crop for several populations in the Andes, where it stayed relatively unknown to the rest of the world until quite recently.

From what I could find (I’m not 100% sure on this), it looks like quinoa was introduced to the U.S. in the 70s or 80s, but it’s really the past decade or so that its popularity and price have skyrocketed (over $3000/ton) to the point where it is a common household pantry item.  2013 is the International Year of Quinoa, after all.  With several different varieties (over 3000!), an adaptability for multiple climatic environments, and being the only plant that contains all of the essential amino acids, trace elements and vitamins it’s no wonder it has attained “superfood” status.  NASA even thinks it’s cool.

But as with the globalization of nearly every food that evolves into a worldwide commodity, not everything about quinoa’s success story is so rosy.  As demand for quinoa across the world soars to unprecedented levels, so have its prices, which is great news for those who are trying to selling it and able to raise their standard of living, but prices have risen sometimes so much so that it is no longer profitable for farmers to grow quinoa for local consumption, among other growing pains starting to present themselves in the face of a newly booming crop.

As quinoa gets pushed into a domain available to only the better off and affluent, a conflict occurs for those of us who enjoy quinoa.  Most of us gluten free people love that quinoa has become more popular and more widely available, as it is not often that a naturally GF nutritionally packed food just appears on supermarket shelves.  A new edible “grain” opens up a world of variety for meal ideas, especially since the typical standards (at least in our home), potatoes and rice, get boring very fast.

But as consumers are likely a significant contribution to the growing worldwide quinoa demand, should we make ourselves aware of not only the successes but also the problems that arise from our actions? Should we feel proud that we have helped this boom market to occur, or guilty at the struggles now existing for which we, as consumers, are in some way partly responsible? Is it better to continue to buy and eat quinoa and let the business of quinoa grow as it has, or should we be looking to other crops such as amaranth and millet (and what are the geo-poltical-socio-economic consequences of purchasing those items?) to add variety to the GF lifestyle?  Should we be supporting locally grown quinoa instead? How does that market choice affect the lifestyles and traditions of the people who have been originally producing quinoa?

I don’t think there are any easy answers, and every solution will have consequences in one form or another, both positive and negative.  As with many of the foods we eat, the issues that come with them are often rather complex.  What may seem like an easy quick decision at the grocery store can be one of many quick decisions that lead to unintended (or intended) effects elsewhere.

What do I do? We eat quinoa, because being gluten free it gives us some much needed variety into our diets.  But it’s not an everyday food for us (the price alone guarantees that – I paid 7.90 CHF for a 500g bag last time).  I’m still unsure what is the best way to go about making a decision as to the suitability of purchasing quinoa in western society, and unsure of my exact responsibility as a consumer.  What I do know, however, is that our purchases and habits often require thought beyond “how will I cook this?”, and it is worth taking a look into how our actions affect the lives of others.

How do you weigh the ethics of what you eat?