The Long, Complex Ride to Superfood Stardom

One of the rising stars of U.S. supermarket aisles, particularly for the health conscious, is quinoa. If you browse the health food racks, you’ve certainly seen an increase in products that tout their quinoa content.

May 1, 2013 at 10:58 am

One of the rising stars of U.S. supermarket aisles, particularly for the health conscious, is quinoa. If you browse the health food racks, you’ve certainly seen an increase in products that tout their quinoa content.

Quinoa (pronounced “keen-wah”) is a seed that cooks like rice. For vegetarians, it’s the perfect protein substitute — quinoa is the rare plant that contains all nine essential amino acids, giving it the protein potency of meat. Quinoa also has supporters in the weight loss community. Numerous websites mention the seed as a good way to shed pounds (high fiber, low calories, etc.). 

In the rest of the world, quinoa’s status is a bit more esteemed than mere health food fad. Quinoa is considered a “superfood” for its high nutritional value, and the United Nations believes it could be the magical seed to help fix food insecurity across the globe. The U.N. has such strong belief in quinoa’s potential to feed (more of) the world because of its protein benefits and “agricultural versatility,” the organization officially declared 2013 The International Year of the Quinoa.” The U.N.’s objective is to take advantage of quinoa’s biodiversity and nutritional value to provide food security and eradicate poverty.

Quinoa is not a food without controversy, either. Despite the U.N.’s cheerleading, some believe that the crop’s popularity could actually be damaging to the South American farming communities from which it comes. Quinoa has been a part of Andean culture for more than 3,000 years — its main producers are Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. Journalists from Mother Jones and The Guardian have recently written about how quinoa’s demand and prices have risen so much, poorer people from those countries can no longer afford it, leading to the dreaded food insecurity. There’s also concern that farming expansion could damage the environment. It’s a foggy ethical dilemma for people whose choice to go vegan or vegetarian is often ethical itself.

Back in the States, the focus is more on mass-producing and marketing quinoa as it inches closer to becoming a household name. In the nutritional food aisle of a Hyde Park grocer, I dug around for quinoa’s presence. Though not quite as available as, say, flax seed products, I still found plenty of things bragging about their chic “superfood” content. 

I’d read that the Mary Gone Crackers brand’s organic, wheat- and gluten-free crackers were tasty; when I got them home, I realized it was probably a vegetarian who said that. Dry and hard, it was like eating a weirdly textured poker chip — with “herb” flavoring. 

The U.S.-based Ancient Harvest Quinoa brand had a lot of the quinoa marketplace cornered at the store I visited. I tried the microwavable Quinoa & Brown Rice packet made by Seeds of Change, one of several organic food corporations that use quinoa. Texturally and taste-wise, it reminded me of some strange hybrid of orzo, rice, grain and beans. But, like the crackers, it was rather bland (though it could’ve been more the rice).

When infused into crackers, pasta and, especially, granola, the quinoa doesn’t have much of a flavor. Many granola brands have “quinoa” offerings. I grabbed the Nice brand’s Dark Chocolate and Raspberry Cluster granola. It was tasty, but no more than any other granola with chocolate in it.

When a food gets its name on the front of the package, it’s like getting to the minor leagues. When a food starts getting its name on the packaging of products by noted American manufacturers, it’s made it to the bigs. Snyder’s of Hanover — which makes an extensive line of pretzels — welcomed quinoa to the big time with Whole Grain Tortilla Chips, part of Snyder’s health-food-ish Eat Smart sub-brand’s sub-brand, Naturals (this is the company that makes “Bacon Cheddar Pretzel Pieces,” mind you). The “star” ingredients are trumpeted on the front of the “We really care about the environment” bag design — sea salt, flax, quinoa, sesame and chia seed.

The Campbell’s soup company uses quinoa in the hippest way. The company drew some mockery with the introduction of its Campbell’s Go Soup, microwavable packets (have fun with those antique “cans,” grandpa!) of soup with faux-bohemian designs on the outside and trendy “foodie” items in the soup, all in an effort to woo “millennials.” The Chicken & Quinoa with Poblano Chilies soup was very good, but basically tasted like rich lentil soup.

Like most trends, quinoa’s popularity will either endure or plummet. In 10 years, will quinoa be cruising the same path to food fame as mayo, which recently passed ketchup as America’s favorite condiment? Or will saying “quinoa” to someone in a decade make them ask their inner-ear smarter-phone to pull up a Japanese-to-American translator? 

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