Should We Be Eating Quinoa?

Let's face it. Ten years ago, you never heard of quinoa (pronounced keen-wah). Now you can't live without it. Well, maybe that's not quite the case, but quinoa has become a staple on many tables. Those who follow a gluten-free diet like it because it's one of those grains that is in fact gluten-free. Except maybe for the fact that it's not a grain. Nope. Bet you didn't know it, but quinoa is a relative of foods like spinach, beets and chard. In fact, you can eat the leaves of a quinoa plant as well. But that's not what we eat here. What we eat when we eat quinoa is the seed of the plant. So, quinoa is a seed.

It's also one of the few plants that actually provides us with a complete protein --- a complete protein being one that provides us with all nine of the essential amino acids that our bodies need. Soy is another plant food that provides a complete protein into our diets. So, when your friends ask "Where do you get your protein, you can answer them: from quinoa and soy, that's where."

Some have even labelled quinoa a superfood, one because of its being a complete protein and two because the plant is high in anti-antioxidant chemicals. And you know what happens when a food becomes a superfood, don't you? Sales take off as everybody and their brother thinks that by eating these so-called superfoods alongside their meat-centric meals, they will become healthier, wealthier and wise. Or at least they'll feel healthier and wiser than everybody else if not wealthier.

But those sales pickups may also be a cause for concern. Sure it's good for our health, but growing it for an increasing population that is seeking it out may not be sustainable. According to the Wall Street Journal, U.S. imports of quinoa have increased from about 1.6 million pounds per year in 2007 to over 14 million pounds in 2013. That's almost a tenfold increase in six years.

And where do we import quinoa from? It comes from the Andes region of Bolivia and Peru, where it has been a staple in local diets for thousands of years. It's a basic food for those who live in that region, but it's also one that's becoming harder to afford for the local population. If we keep eating it, then it will likely eventually start to be grown in other places, perhaps the United States. But it's not a product that is germane to the United States and growing it right means rotating it with other crops and having the right mix of soil and climate.

So, is it sustainable? I'd say the jury is still out on that. For us in the United States, I think it's a food we can enjoy, and it's one that's very nutritious for us. But like the crop in the farmer's field, perhaps our best solution is to rotate it in and out of our diets. Even on a gluten-free diet, it doesn't need to be the only grain (actually seed) that we eat.