By Veronica Chavez
Photo courtesy of Christian Guthier.
Within recent years, Americans have become increasingly concerned with digestive health. Ingredient lists and the processes foods go through before ending up on the dinner table has become a major part of the decision-making component of purchasing products for health-conscious consumers.
Due to this new heightened awareness, organic, sustainably produced, and gluten-free products have become more and more prevalent within stores.
According to Mintel, a market research company, the gluten-free food and beverage industry in the US reached $10.5 billion in 2013, and is predicted to grow 48 percent to $15.6 billion in 2016.
While some may think celiac disease–a digestive and autoimmune disorder where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine—is the cause for the increase in the industry, some 82 percent of consumers who eat gluten-free foods, or used to eat them, have not been diagnosed with celiac disease.
Similar to fads such as the no-sugar diet and low-carb Atkins diet, debate has ensued as to whether following a gluten-free lifestyle is necessarily healthier than not. Some critics argue that gluten-free foods are often not fortified with essential vitamins and nutrients, a fact that negligent consumers may not realize.
So why do people choose to begin following a gluten-free diet?
Forty-five percent of consumers reported eating gluten-free foods for weight loss reasons, although there is a lack of proof that a gluten-free diet contributes directly to weight loss. Thirty-eight percent of consumers report following the gluten-free diet because they believe it’s better for their overall health–ideology that may stem more from dieters’ increased consumption of fruits and vegetables than abstaining from gluten.
While sales of gluten-free products like cookies, pasta, and bread are reaching all-time highs, there is also a great deal of people deciding to consume products that are naturally gluten-free. Amaranth, millet, buckwheat, and quinoa are all viable wheat substitutes for those who want to abstain from eating gluten.
Speaking of these naturally gluten-free foods, quinoa has had an especially successful past couple of years. The United Nations even declared 2013 the “International Year of Quinoa” to generate expectations and highlight challenges for the potential global contribution of the crop.
As reported in the State of the Art Report on Quinoa Around the World in 2013, “due to its nutritional qualities, diversity, and resistance to drought and cold, quinoa has been identified as an important alternative to contribute to global food security.”
BTR spoke with Didier Bazile, one of the authors of the report and member of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) about the critics who say that the increased demand of quinoa is having a negative impact on the environment and quinoa producers’ livelihoods.
Bazile explains that it is difficult to estimate the impact of quinoa cultivation since a complex mix of factors influence the production of the crop. In regards to soil fertility, these numerous factors have rendered it “impossible to link the reduced yields of recent years directly to the intensification of quinoa production alone.”
For now, FAO has determined a few components that have affected quinoa yields. For one, the high degree of inter-annual climatic variability on the plateaus of Bolivia and Peru (quinoa’s top producers), as well as changes in practices (like mechanized sowing) has damaged the soil’s fertility.
Additionally, farmers are practicing new land use patterns where cultivation occurs on plains, which are more vulnerable to frost than the traditional hillside location. Still, he reiterates an in-depth study is needed to identify the determining factors behind the evolution in agricultural yields.
In regards to the livelihoods of quinoa producers in Bolivia and Peru, Bazile believes that there is a lot of inaccurate information being circulated. Some reports have suggested that the increased export of quinoa in these countries has led to reduced domestic consumption. Bazile argues that these countries have had the same level of quinoa consumption since the 80s and that the problem of food security is “much more complex.”
As relayed by Bazile, a recent study in Southern Bolivia shows 81 percent of farmers interviewed say quinoa is their primary source of income, and almost all farmers defined the current price level as adequate.
Many farmers have stopped managing llama herds year-round to instead cultivate quinoa part-time, which most media outlets list as a negative effect since llama manure is used to fertilize the soil and some areas have not been replenished due to this shift. Although this halt in migration has had a harmful effect on some soil areas, the overall boom in quinoa has led to improvement in basic assets (namely, housing and sanitary services) and has halted the migration of young workers out of rural areas, a problem Bazile feels is greater than soil fertility, which the FAO has been working on with farmers.
Bazile is glad that the numerous activities and initiatives that took place throughout the International Year of Quinoa 2013 pushed this “neglected crop” and its “enormous potential” into the limelight.
Although he admits that there are challenges ahead that compromise the promotion of public and social inclusion policies, “a research network should continue to share information in multiple languages” about the crop.
As long as gluten-free food continues to grow as a sector, he concludes, the production and sustainability of quinoa and other highly nutritious grains will only improve.