Quinoa, the superfood that keeps on giving

F or farmers in the Andes the month of June is a special month. It is the month of harvest that includes the harvesting of the fruits of the land, which according to the type of farming involves different activities and traditions, for instance harvesting the grains of the quinoa. After they are cut and gathered together in a small field they are left to dry in the sun, before threshing (violently thrashing) the seed heads to remove the grain, and winnowing (blow air on to remove the husks).

During an Andean summer the days are beautiful with blue skies and bright sunshine. There is no rain, and the dry season had already begun. At night the sky is alive with twinkling stars and meteorites, and the temperature drops dramatically. In June, we have long nights and short days, this phenomenon is known as the winter solstice. During this time the people enjoy nature more, for instance they celebrate the feast of San Juan.
Originally this involved burning all the residual crops, and it was common to see all the hills surrounding Huaraz on fire. This native custom took place the eve of the feast of San Juan, which is the 23rd of June. These huge fires would continue burning until the morning of the 24th. Now this custom has been banned because it affects the ecology negatively. Also vandalism takes place, for instance the burning of forests, and plantations, which can easily happen because the land is very dry and there is plenty of dry brush to generate fires.

This month is considered to be the month of the Inti Raymi, which is known as the festival of the Sun God, and takes place in Cuzco to mark the beginning of the new Inca calendar. This festival was first celebrated by our pre-Inca ancestors to whom agriculture, astronomy, gold handcrafts and other activities were of great importance.

In Huaraz and the Callejon de Huaylas agriculture has been an important economic activity. In the previous century, native crops were passed over in favour of European products introduced by the Spanish, such as wheat and barley. This in turn displaced the seeding and production of native Peruvian products. In addition, to favour the Spanish economically, indigenous communities were forced to seed, produce, and harvest their native products in small areas, while the same people still had to cultivate the products brought from Europe in larger areas. Hence, the normal diet of the natives was slowly altered, until finally the scale of home consumption of ancestral Andean products diminished completely.

After overcoming long periods of social and economic hardship that forced rural populations to emigrate and abandon their small fields in the country, this situation was reversed in the mid-90s. Things gradually improved with new economic, political, and social awareness, which generated a greater demand for opening the Peruvian economy to the international markets. Throughout Peru changes in lifestyle and eating patterns helped us obtain healthier eating habits and develop preference for natural food over processed foods.
The public started to have more access to information, and new research allowed the consumer to know about scientific progress and health benefits. These health benefits are found in the components of the original Andean products, such as the quinoa. The components of quinoa are regarded as miracles for human nutrition, and give us the opportunity to produce, sell and consume an agricultural product of high quality for great profits, which consequently improves our nutrition and economy. To know more about quinoa and its generous attributes as a grain we need to understand where it comes from.

Quinoa grows throughout the Andes, in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Chile. It is specifically grown by farmers in the valleys, from Cajamarca to Cuzco and the Arequipean highlands of the Altiplano region. It is also grown in the region of Mendoza, in the area of Valdivia and Concepción in Chile. Peru and Bolivia are the largest producers. These countries have areas such as the Uyuni Salt flats in the Bolivian altiplano, where quinoa flourishes because of the plant’s high tolerance of saline soils, which makes the quinoa a crop of excellence. Peru and Bolivia also have the largest variety of quinoa ecotypes. To be more exact, they have over 2000 sample ecotypes, plus the samples of Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, Colombia, USA, England and Russia.

Quinoa is a plant that only lives for a specific period of time, and has a variable size, for instance it can measure from 50 cm up to three metres, depending on the ecotype, race and the ecological environment where it grows. Crops are produced anywhere from sea level up to altitudes of over 4,000 metres, and with an annual rainfall from 300 up to 1000 mm, and can thrive in both temperate climates and very cold climates. The colour of the quinoa can vary from greens, purples and reds.

Crops are classified according to the areas where the quinoa has grown and been adapted by the growers, finding names and classifications such as Quinoas from the Valley. These quinoas are grown at an altitude of between 2000 and 3000 metres, and have a long growth period (up to eight months). Another type of quinoa is developed around Lake Titicaca, this plant is resistant to frost has few branches and has a short period of growth. Another kind of quinoa is that which is grown in the saline and alkaline soils of the Bolivian altiplano. The quinoa plant that is found in the south of Chile is a medium size plant without branches, and has yellow seeds that have a bitter taste. And finally the sub-tropical quinoas. These are found in the Andean valleys of Bolivia; they have green and orange flowers.
The particular benefits of quinoa are in their high nutritional value. The content of protein ranges from 10.85% to 21.9%, depending on the variety. Quinoa is considered as the only food of the plant kingdom that provides all essential amino acids. The high amino acid and protein content, makes quinoa grains highly recommended in meals provided by preschools, and schools as well as for adult diets. The exceptional rich contents in amino acids of the quinoa, also gives it interesting therapeutic properties. For example, lysine an essential amino acid most abundant in the seed of the quinoa, enhances immune functionality by aiding in the formation of antibodies, and promotes gastric function, assists in cell repair and is involved in the metabolism of fatty acids which helps transport and absorb calcium (FAO, 2011).

It also has a high percentage of Total Dietary Fibre which makes it an ideal food that acts as a scavenger of the body, achieving the elimination of toxins and wastes that can damage the body. In addition it provides the feeling of fullness, because it has the property absorb water and stay longer in the stomach. A problematic element of quinoa is saponin. This element is presented as an obstacle which is characterized by its sour flavour and foaming action. To make the quinoa suitable for human consumption, it has to be thoroughly washed and rubbed prior to cooking. Through research and technological development, these procedures have advanced significantly, and now pre-processed quinoa is commercially available. This quinoa has gone through a process called desaponification, which means it is ready for human consumption.

Quinoa is used in different ways, from its traditional use in soups, seconds, marzipan, Mass, beverages, chicha de quinoa, muffins and dry snacks, to non-traditional uses such as pancakes, donuts, juice, bread and nectar, and new value-added products such as breads, pastas, vegetable protein mixtures, cakes biscuits and so forth are made with quinoa flour instead of wheat flour

Industry also produces flour, flakes, dehydrated soups, extruded quinoa rice cakes and chocolates. It is also a group of ready-to-eat foods that are usually had for breakfast, which are made of quinoa, such as dry cereal, chips. In recent years certain strains of quinoa, especially those of colour, have received special attention from the most renowned chefs, and thus their value and acceptance is spreading in urban areas, and in all types of restaurants, where quinoa has appeared in glorious culinary events across the world such as the Madrid Fusion.

Between 2005 and 2011, Peru went from exporting $2.5 million to $25.9 million of quinoa. The United Nations declared the year 2013 as the International Year of Quinoa.

I expect that our small farmers will take advantage of this opportunity and sow more quinoa fields. There are a huge number of people around the world looking for new, good food options. And it is better if these options are natural fields and crop products.

About the author: Betel Sevillano Montañez is an economist and has a master’s in business administration, he works as a grains trader and is a small farmer who cultivates and exports quinoa from his family farm in Llupa, close to Huaraz, on the way to Churup. Also he cultivates and produces peaches on his small boutique farm in Mancos, Callejón de Huaylas. He believes that there are great business opportunities for small agricultures of la sierra.

Contact: fundoelmayoral@hotmail.com

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