As an alternative to oats, I often cook quinoa as a breakfast cereal, maybe topping it with a fruit compote or almonds and maple syrup. Quinoa has gained in popularity in the health food community, mainly for its high protein content that makes it ideal for vegans –  it can be easily added to salads, cereal patties or, as I do, eaten as breakfast.

Quinoa is not strictly a grain but it’s the seed of the quinoa plant which is closely related to beets and spinach. It’s been a staple in Latin America, especially in the Andean communities, for the last 2,000 years, alongside maize and potato. Easily cultivated at high altitudes, the seeds have a bitter, soapy tasting coating that repels insects and birds and which requires thorough rinsing before consumption, although most boxed quinoa has already been rinsed for convenience. But if you buy it in bulk, you might want to soak it for a few hours then rinse it before cooking it, unless you want your taste buds to be unpleasantly surprised.

Quinoa has become a favorite because it’s unusually rich in protein and amino-acids for a plant food. But if we feel virtuous and healthy when we reach for that quinoa box at the market, there is actually another side to the story, one which represents the repercussions our new purchasing habits have thousands of miles away.

Bolivia has been growing quinoa for thousands of years, where it has been a staple in poor farming communities. As demand for quinoa started to grow, more and more Bolivian farmers began to grow the plant exclusively for export, driving up the price for the locals who can scarcely afford it anymore. A breakfast drink made of quinoa, milk, sugar and fruit (similar to the Mexican liquado) has been replaced by fast food, a meal based around quinoa is now made with pasta or rice,  leading to malnutrition in those poor communities previously kept healthy by quinoa’s nutritional properties. The problem has become so widespread, the Bolivian government is now subsidizing quinoa in schools.

I am not going to discuss the merits of eating only what is local and seasonal in an age when all types of foods are available year round but, somehow, reading about this made me feel less virtuous. Life as a responsible consumer presents complications at every turn. On one hand I am helping enriching a Bolivian farmer while, on the other, my precious breakfast robs him of his health and pushes him towards McDonald’s. I obviously don’t have an answer and no, I will not starting lamenting for the good old days.



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