The food fad that's starving Bolivia

Quinoa is hailed as a 'superfood' in the West. But those who grow it can no longer afford it

It is the "lost crop" of the Incas, a health-giving seed found in the Andes which is increasingly providing the garnish on fashionable Western dinner plates. But while demand for quinoa has given a lifeline to Bolivia's farmers, the native population, no longer able to afford a staple of the national diet, is now facing the threat of malnutrition.

Cultivated for 5,000 years in the arid highlands of Bolivia, Peru and Chile, quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) was once the preserve of specialist health food shops and patchouli-scented cafes.

The Aztecs assigned mystical qualities to the yellow seeds, produced from the chenopodium plant, a relative of spinach and chard, which create a crunchy, nutty tasting fine grain when cooked.

Legend has it that each season, the Incan emperor would sow the first seeds of the "mother of all grains", planted on the cold mountain plains using "golden implements".

Today it is the nutritional qualities of the seed which have generated a new export market for South American farmers.

Quinoa contains more protein than any other "grain" and includes all eight essential amino acids needed for tissue development. Nasa once declared quinoa the perfect food for astronauts undertaking extended space flights.

Supermarkets, on the lookout for the latest "superfood", are marketing the gluten-free seeds as a healthier alternative to rice and pasta. Tesco sells 300g packs, labelled "essential for the body's growth and repair", for £1.69.

Cooked like rice, quinoa is served with "pilaf" broths and casseroles, incorporated into salads tossed with herbed vinaigrette, or eaten as a porridge-style breakfast with nuts, fruit and honey.

The television chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall praises the seed for "delivering hefty whacks of flavour" and recommends a quinoa stir-fry with kale, chilli and nuts, a "tasty, quick meal when hot, but it's also good packed into a container and eaten cold at lunchtime."

Waitrose offers a recipe for Papaya Lime Quinoa, using Granovita organic quinoa, fresh mint and red chillies.

Where the Incas grew quinoa to feed their soldiers, Bolivian farmers are now producing the crop for mass export. Quinoa prices have tripled over the past five years, raising living standards for agricultural workers in the south of the country.

Entrepreneurial Bolivians are returning from the city to cultivate quinoa plots in the countryside. But the country's agriculture ministry is reporting that as prices have risen national quinoa consumption has slumped by 34 per cent over five years, with local families no longer able to afford a staple that has become a luxury. A 1kg bag of quinoa costs almost five times the amount of its rice equivalent in local stores.

Bolivia has long suffered from a malnutrition problem and there are fears that the population will be forced to turn to cheaper, processed foods. Children in the quinoa- growing south of the country are among those showing chronic malnutrition symptoms.

Evo Morales, Bolivia's President, is promising a $10 million loan facility for farmers to grow more quinoa designed for domestic consumption. But there is a growing North American export market to satisfy and global food commodity prices are continuing to rise.

There is a potential threat to South America's farmers – quinoa can thrive in the wet climes of Bolton as well as Bolivia. An increasing number of Britons are cultivating their own supply of quinoa in kitchen gardens and allotments.

Ben Gabel of the Real Seed Catalogue said: "We only have 180 packets of quinoa seeds left in stock this year. It's quite popular because it's a very adaptable plant and easier to thresh than wheat. It's resistant to the cold at night which helps it grow here."

Preparing quinoa for the dining table brings its own challenges. Mr Gabel explained: "The seeds need to be soaked for up to eight hours to get rid of the layer of saponin resin which is there to stop birds eating the seeds."

Know your quinoa

* Cultivated in the Andes since 3000BC, the "mother grain" was turned into marching food for Incan armies.

* A species of goosefoot, the seeds are high in magnesium and iron and a good source of dietary fibre.

* The World Health Organisation rates the quality of protein in quinoas as equivalent to that in milk.

* The grain has a nutty taste. It can be served in place of rice in cooked dishes, salads, side dishes, or as a stuffing. Serving suggestions include butternut squash chilli with quinoa, a quinoa tabbouleh salad, and as a main course with spicy chicken.

Quinoa alternatives

Couscous North African in origin, particularly popular in Moroccan cuisine. Made from durum wheat, ground barley or pearl millet. Spherical granules around a millimetre in diameter.

Bulgur wheat Most commonly found in Middle Eastern cuisine, also popular in Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria. Used in pilafs, soups, breads, and as stuffing.

Freekeh Roasted green wheat, popular in Middle Eastern food, particularly in Egypt. The wheat is harvested while still soft, then set on fire so only the straw and chaff burn, and not the seeds. First mentioned in a 13th-century Baghdad cookery book. Now most commonly served in the Egyptian dish hamam bi'l-farik – pigeon stuffed with green wheat.

Moghrabieh Known as giant couscous, it is Syrian in origin but more popular in Lebanon. Like couscous but with larger grains, which vary in size, so they don't always cook evenly, and retain a chewy, starchy consistency. More dumplings than couscous.

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