Contemplating quinoa and food security


I wrote a cover article for the April issue of Gluten-Free Living magazine, Quinoa: a safe and healthy part of the GF diet. Among other questions, it responds to concern about cross-contamination by wheat and similar grains. The verdict: quinoa is generally a safe and highly nutritious food for people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Anyone for whom gluten is toxic must still beware and shop for products (quinoa is no exception) that are tested and certified gluten-free. However, the scope of my article does not address ethical concerns dogging the international production of quinoa.

Quinoa serves as a symbol of the balance between personal and global nutrition. The United Nations has designated 2013 International Year of Quinoa because of its high nutritional value and potential for aiding food security. Grown for thousands of years in the Andes of South America, quinoa is especially adapted for high altitudes, cool, arid conditions and salty soil where few other crops thrive.

It was a food virtually unknown anywhere else until the first seeds were imported to North America in the 1970s. It was hailed as a wonder food, quickly recognized as an important alternative for people who could not tolerate wheat and other grains. Quinoa quickly became fashionable for foodies and everyone adopting a gluten-free diet.

Then, of course, things became complicated. Quinoa crop values quickly overshot wheat. Within two decades, a nutritious food readily available where it was grown in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador quickly became unaffordable to much of the indigenous population. A fair trade industry sprang up in response to concern (and guilt) about dubious commercial and environmental practices. But as with free trade coffee, these quinoa products provide opportunities for exploitation, not the simple solution we would like. Local policy-makers may be in the best position to ensure the quinoa industry benefits subsistence farmers. Hopefully the UN initiative will further illuminate these issues.

Quinoa has become an important food for me, as someone with gluten sensitivity. This is hard to grasp for anyone who does not seriously consider the implications of eliminating wheat along with close relatives barley, rye, spelt and kamut. It is not only the main suspects that come to mind: bread, pizza, pasta and other baked goods–not only the multiplicity of food items in which wheat gluten occurs as a hidden ingredient: sauces, gravies, crusts, batters, soy sauce and most prepared foods, just for starters–but also the prevalence of wheat and its tendency to creep into everything unintentionally and surreptitiously, from dust in processing plants to crumbs in the butter dish.

Fortunately, my sensitivity, while very real, is relatively mild. I can eat at restaurants without worrying about dust flying around the back kitchen, the prospect of severe diarrhea or being rushed to hospital. Many people with celiac disease are not so lucky. It places severe restrictions on what they do and where they can eat. The only known cure at this time is life-long abstention from wheat and related products. In some intractable cases the illness persists despite considerable lifestyle changes.

Enjoying my food is a key to healthy eating, though I am ashamed to acknowledge this pleasure is a luxury. Some 925 million people around the world, almost one in seven, were malnourished in 2010 according to UN estimates. Obviously, they have little choice about what to eat, and my decisions inevitably affect them.

I seldom consider the gluten-free diet a hardship because of how my health improved after I switched in March 2008. But besides that, it improved my life in other, less tangible ways. I learned to be a more thoughtful and patient eater. I discovered many delicious and nutritious alternatives such as quinoa, amaranth and brown rice pasta. I still miss the crusty chewiness of a good, old-fashioned baguette or pizza crust, but in many cases prefer the alternatives. Sorghum flour is, in my opinion, superior to wheat as an ingredient in cakes and cookies. I am not suffering.

I love the delicious nuttiness of quinoa and appreciate its nutritive qualities, with a better-balanced protein content than practically any other plant food. Quinoa’s unique flavour and texture make it ideal for salad or stuffing. It is an indispensable ingredient in coating for chicken or tofu nuggets. If I listed 10 more foods I would hate to sacrifice, quinoa would be one of them.

I have already concluded that giving up all exotic foods is not necessarily the best path to a healthier world. We cannot grow certain things here in Canada. Some like citrus fruit are nearly essential.

As it turns out, we can grow quinoa. It performs well in cooler temperatures. Some cultivars have adapted to our bizarre summer day length.

The challenge is that North American agriculture typically also includes wheat. In researching the story for Gluten-Free Living I encountered one grower who made no effort to defend quinoa against contamination in the field or processing plant. In 2012, Canadian tax dollars supported an initiative by the Canadian Celiac Association to develop industry consensus about safe practices for growing and handling gluten-free crops. Hopefully this will progress toward an experimental pilot program. NorQuin brand quinoa products grown on the Canadian prairies, while not yet certified gluten-free, are grown and processed according to safe guidelines, according to a spokesperson I interviewed.

Food security begins in our backyards. I hear that quinoa is being grown commercially here in Ontario, but have yet to find it available as a product either in stores or the local farmers’ market. Maybe one summer soon I will try growing some myself. Like most grains and cereals it requires some fancy processing. Specifically, the bitter outer saponin coat must be removed. So far I hesitate to dedicate limited time and garden space to such a labour-intensive crop.

It is hard to grasp that growing our own quinoa will not take money out of the pockets of subsistence farmers in the Andes, but that is how the world works. Food security cannot happen on a global scale unless is functions locally for everyone. During International Year of Quinoa, the Bolivian government is concentrating on introducing it as a part of school breakfasts and prenatal care, while supporting small-scale farming. We would do well to follow this example of reinforcing nutrition with our own local agriculture.

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