FOOD

Quinoa – The miracle plant from the Ecuadorian Andes

By Philip Schmitt

Rich in nutrients, healthier and simply better for your organism – So called superfoods are on everyone’s lips and give food blogs and health forums a complete new sphere of interest and pure euphoria. When talking about these superfoods, everyone might inevitably think of Popeye the Sailor, who in his adventures cracks open a can of spinach and develops superhuman strengths. But his favorite food spinach has received several competition. Nowadays, the good-humored sailor would have the agony of choice between numerous trendy superfoods that outstrip the good old spinach.

One of these superfoods is Quinoa, which is already cultivated and harvested in the Andes Mountains since more than 5,000 years. Its one-seeded nuts of the plants are an important staple food of the mountain peoples in these regions with high altitudes, since corn cannot be grown at these heights anymore. UN general secretary Ban Ki-Moon declared 2013 the year of quinoa. Due to its specific advantages, the plant is said to help fight hunger in the world, especially in times of climate change. This is mainly because Quinoa can grow in easy conditions, is a relatively undemanding plant and can grow at heights up to 13,800ft. Apart from that, the Quinoa plant is frost and drought resistant.

Depending on where the plants grow, the seeds differ significantly in their color. The spectrum ranges from black to red over gray, pink, yellow, purple, green or orange – or nuances in between. Albeit, the white, red and black colors are the most common quinoa seeds that are sold.However there is no significant difference in taste and ingredients between the different colors. All varieties have the same health benefits in their diet. The typical nutty, slightly earthy taste is the same for all varieties.

Originally quinoa comes from the Lake Titicaca basin of Peru and Bolivia. During the Spanish conquests in South America and wars against the Incas and Aztecs in the 16th century the cultivation of quinoa was banned and even punishable by death to weaken the opponents’ people. Quinoa was first scientifically recorded in 1797 by the German botanist Carl Ludwig von Willdenow. But it was beyond that still branded as heretic and “unchristian” and remained almost unknown in Europe until the 20th century.

In 1993, a NASA report described quinoa as a “new” crop, which would be particularly suitable for use in Controlled Ecological Life Support Systems (e.g. space stations or colonies) due to its high protein values and unique amino acid structure. This promotion made Quinoa internationally known and raised its demand in the following years in Europe and North America.

Next to the worldwide production leader Peru (130,000 tons in 2015) and Bolivia (92,000 tons in 2015), the Ecuadorian economy benefits as well from the worldwide raised interest and higher demand of Quinoa. It became in the last years an important part of the Ecuadorian economy and the yearly tonnage could be raised annualy:

Quinoa production worldwide from 2009 to 2015 by country (in metric tons)

But not only the yearly tonnage is rising, with it in the same breath the fields where Quinoa is grown. This agricultural expansion also enriches the scenery of the Ecuadorian landscapes. Quinoa plants can grow from 1.6 up to 10ft high and are therefore easily visible from afar. Most of the times it won’t be possible to see them until their fully grown, because they are harvested earlier before they reached their full stature. If many quinoa plants are grown in a densely populated field, the fields radiate in many bright colors  and give its green environment a pleasurable hue.