Quinoa, new enemy of the environment. What about health?
It would seem perfect: starch and protein together, almost complete food, a “super food” that makes quinoa the new vegan alternative. But all that glitters is not gold. Quinoa is a “pseudo-cereal”, that means it is not a cereal but produces seeds similar to cereal grains, although belonging to the spinach and beetroot family.
“The Andean miraculous grain” is a typical food in Bolivia, that has been present in the Andean rural population for centuries. But today we see a real explosion of the market, which highlights its excellent nutritional properties and the lack of gluten, a feature increasingly demanded, not only by those required to follow a gluten free diet, but also by those who mistakenly believe they will benefit from it.
Compared to cereals, quinoa possesses less carbohydrates, higher protein content, more fibres, more minerals, and more fat, especially polyunsaturates omega 6. The presence of these nutrients has given it the title of “super-food”, becoming more demanded especially by vegetarians and vegans, who need to pay more attention to planning their diet and to look for valuable alternative products to animal foods with higher nutritional value.
But even in this case there is a downside. Quinoa, in fact, contains a number of irritant toxic compounds for the intestines, which can cause inflammation, digestive problems and difficulty in absorbing nutrients. Among these are oxalates, antinutritive factors that, combined with iron, zinc and magnesium, make them useless, favouring deficiency states such as anaemia and osteoporosis. They also bind to calcium introduced with diet, reducing its absorption and forming calcium oxalate, insoluble crystals that can precipitate in the urinary tract and determine the formation of kidney stones. Soaking and boiling can reduce oxalates from 19 to 87%, but high intake of quinoa for those suffering from osteoporosis or kidney stones is not advised. In general, the diet should not make more than 100 mg of oxalates per day, so should not be too rich in foods containing them in discrete quantities, such as spinach, whole grains, dried fruits, seeds, legumes, soy and quinoa.
Moreover, quinoa contains saponins, toxic compounds limiting the absorption of nutrients and causing alteration of the cell membrane composition. Saponins are responsible for the “leaky gut“, causing literally holes in the gastric mucosa: this causes the increase in intestinal permeability, i.e. loss of intestinal capacity to make barrier against harmful substances, allowing the entry into it, along with bacteria and toxins, and triggering autoimmune reactions and systemic inflammation. The amount of saponin in quinoa can also reach 2.3% in the bitter variety, and considering that the maximum permissible level of saponin for human consumption varies between 0.06 and 0.12%, it is necessary a “desaponification” process, a treatment reducing saponins, but also decreases the content of minerals, especially calcium. There are also varieties lacking or low in saponins, but are more susceptible to pathogenic attacks and therefore require greater intervention with plant protection products that can lead to residues on the product when consumed.
Compared to most cereals, quinoa has a higher protein content, so it can only be regarded as a good protein source if we compare it with these: when comparison is made with other protein foods, we cannot say the same, as it has a lower protein content than most legumes, meat and other animal products. A portion of cooked quinoa (185 g) ready to eat only supplies 8 g of protein, against 26 g of a slice of 100 g of meat.
Quinoa is also exalted for its mineral content, such as phosphorus, magnesium, iron and zinc, but the presence of antinutritive factors reduces its content and absorption. Phytic acid, for example, blocks the availability of phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, zinc and iron, making them no longer assimilable. It also inhibits important digestive enzymes such as pepsin and amylase, necessary for digestion of proteins and starches, causing nutritional deficiencies and serious health problems. With soaking for a whole night, phytic acid is reduced by 10%, while cooking is not effective in disabling it. To reduce it by 90%, a fermentation or sprouting process is required. It has been shown that the presence of meat and animal products in the meal, taken together with foods containing phytic acid, can counteract its negative action, reducing the effect of blocking the absorption of minerals and proteins. This further demonstrates that diet needs to be complete and that there is a synergy between plant and animal foods.
There is also another concern, in addition to health and not least, about quinoa production: the increase in its demand is devastating the environment in Bolivia, also causing serious food security problems. It is surprising that people putting so much attention on environmental issues and “ethics” consume quinoa with no scruples.
In order to produce so much quinoa, in fact, there is a widespread use of low quality fertilizers, chemical fertilizers and water, waving the soils. Even the famous British magazine “The Guardian”, in the article “Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?” highlighted issues related to its cultivation, such as damage to lama and alpaca farming, confined in the hilly areas to make room for quinoa, and consequently lacking sustainable fertilization of the soil due to the leaching of these animals that enriched the soil with organic substances.
Breaking the equilibrium between breeding and quinoa, extensive use of artificial chemicals is made to counter the impoverishment of soils, causing pollution of the environment and of the product itself, as well as causing damage to the ecosystem and animal biodiversity, such as for example effects on condor population, which is drastically reducing.
Italy is one of the largest importers in Europe, recording a real boom by vegetarian and vegan consumers, who consider it as a protein alternative to meat. To prevent devastating impacts for Bolivia, the person responsible for FAO in Bolivia, Rómulo Caro, explains: “Solution requires improved product quality and enhanced sustainability processes, integrated with camels, lama and alpaca, and other strategies to ensure the food sovereignty of people.” In this regard, the project “Quinoa/Camelid Integrated Agrifood System”, implemented by FAO and ACRA-CCS, an Italian Ong, has started, focusing its activities on quinoa/camelid binomial.
In conclusion, those still convinced of not wanting to exploit animals in any way should know the only way to consume sustainable quinoa is by integrating its production with breeding. And not only. Quinoa is definitely a nutritious food, but considering issues it may cause, it is important to consume it within a balanced diet that includes all foods, to deactivate its toxic components, in order to have a good whole nutrition. Once again plants and animals go hand in hand, for the environment and for health.
Susanna Bramante is an agronomist and scientific writer, author and co-author of 11 scientific publications and numerous articles on human nutrition and its impact on health and environment. In 2010 she received the title of Doctor Europaeus and PhD in Animal Production, Health and Food Hygiene in countries with a Mediterranean climate.