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A guest at our Thanks­giv­ing Left­overs Din­ner raved about a quinoa stuff­ing she’d made for her own fam­i­ly’s annu­al feast the day before. I cringed a bit because few of us com­pre­hend the dark side of our trendy infat­u­a­tion with this ancient food from high in the arid Andes.


Quinoa is the only plant that’s a source of a com­plete pro­tein; it packs so many nutri­ents into so lit­tle space that NASA called it an ideal food for astro­nauts.

Amer­i­ca’s upper class­es, relent­less­ly striv­ing to eat them­selves into good health, have latched onto quinoa as a “superfood,” and are gob­bling up tons of it. As a result, you have this gas­tro­nom­ic mad­ness of stuff­ing an already protein-rich turkey with protein-rich quinoa, when stale bread or bul­gur wheat or rice or corn would do just as well — but with far less col­lat­er­al dam­age to the cit­i­zens of Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, where this stuff is grown.

Our quinoa craze may be enrich­ing farm­ers who grow the stuff — prices, by some esti­mates, have tripled in recent years — and they now can afford mech­a­nized farm equip­ment, solid hous­es and col­lege edu­ca­tion for their chil­dren. That’s the good news. They send us quinoa, we send them money — sounds like a per­fect exam­ple of glob­al­iza­tion. The bad news is that thisboom is wreck­ing the diets of indige­nous peo­ple who actu­al­ly need to eat it, because they no longer can afford to pur­chase this life-sustaining veg­etable. (We gen­er­al­ly think of quinoa as a grain, but it’s actu­al­ly a seed of veg­etable relat­ed to chard.) Even more iron­ic, the chil­dren of these pros­per­ous grow­ers now can afford junk food, so newly acquired wealth is impact­ing their diets, too.

There are reports that quinoa con­sump­tion among those who actu­al­ly live on it is down by about a third in the years since we’ve “dis­cov­ered” this 5,000-year-old seed, and that nutri­tion­al­ly at-risk natives of quinoa-growing coun­tries now only can afford cheap­er, less nour­ish­ing rice or, worse yet, processed food. It starts to sound like right here, where many Amer­i­cans pur­chase cheap, nutri­tion­al­ly sus­pect processed food because they can’t afford the real thing.

Minus­cule quinoa seeds are cooked more or less like rice, and the result can be a sub­sti­tute for any starchy com­po­nent of a meal. You can use it as a cere­al for break­fast or as a pilaf at din­ner; you can make a tabbouleh-like salad for your kid’s lunch­box or thick­en a soup; you can use it instead of cous­cous or add it to your chick­en curry. Much of it is labeled “organ­ic” or “non-GMO” or “gluten-free” or “fair trade” — adding a feel-good appeal to Amer­i­cans who go soft in their legs when they see the word “sus­tain­able” but who may be unaware that they’re tak­ing food from the mouths of chil­dren else­where.

What’s more, the land used for quinoa crops is frag­ile and depends upon del­i­cate bal­ance between agri­cul­ture and herds of lla­mas, which help fer­til­ize the area and whose large padded feet pre­vent erosion. These herds are being reduced to make room for more crops, which sug­gests that even­tu­al­ly they’ll need arti­fi­cial fer­til­iz­er to main­tain pro­duc­tion, under­min­ing one of quinoa’s fun­da­men­tal mar­ket appeals.

So what should we do? None of what I’ve writ­ten means we should stop buy­ing quinoa, because then we’d return the Andean farm­ers to their for­mer states of pover­ty. Instead, it sug­gests to me that if we’re cook­ing a meal that might require a nutri­tion­al boost — espe­cial­ly if we’re veg­e­tar­i­ans or have celi­ac dis­ease, or if we’re out­bound in a space cap­sule — then quinoa starts to make some gas­tro­nom­ic sense. But if we’ve already got a whole­some meal in the oven, we don’t need to over­load it with super­flu­ous “good­ness” while remov­ing dis­pro­por­tion­ate quan­ti­ties of quinoa from coun­tries where it is need­ed far more.

Per­haps this is a bet­ter feel-good approach.

Rozanne Gold is a four-time James Beard award-winning chef and author of Eat Fresh Food: Awe­some Recipes for Teen Chefs, Healthy 1-2-3, and Rad­i­cal­ly Sim­ple: Bril­liant Fla­vors with Breath­tak­ing Ease.

Rozanne can be found on Face­book atwww.facebook.com/RozanneGold.

Photo cred­it: Alter Eco

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Rozanne Gold: Who Needs Quinoa More Than You Do?

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