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Food of Incas and astronauts

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A 1993 NASA technical paper says of the “pseudo grain” quinoa (pronouncedCallie Jones “keen-wah”): “While no single food can supply all the essential life-sustaining nutrients, quinoa comes as close as any other in the plant or animal kingdom.” Quinoa is the only plant food that contains all 10 essential amino acids, and is now part of American astronauts’ diet on long space missions.

This member of the goosefoot plant family originates from the Andean region of South America, where it was domesticated up to 4,000 years ago for human consumption. The Incas referred to it as the “mother of all grains”, and the Inca emperor would sow the first seeds of the season using “golden implements”. This crop flourishes in the hostile conditions of the Andes, at altitudes of up to 4,000m and in temperatures ranging from freezing at night to 40C during the day.

Quinoa’s protein content, 14–18 per cent, exceeds that of wheat, rice, maize and oats, and can be a substitute for animal protein. Its calorific value is greater than that of eggs and milk, and it contains calcium, phosphorus and iron. Quinoa must be processed before consumption to remove its bitter-tasting saponin coating, which South Americans use in detergents and as an antiseptic.

A staple in Andean cultures for thousands of years, quinoa was relatively unknown in the rest of the world until recently. But growing popularity in the US, Europe, China and Japan tripled its price within five years. The crop has proved a lifeline for people living in Bolivia’s Oruro and Potosi regions, among the poorest in South America. But in such poor regions, farmers are choosing to sell their whole crop rather than eat it, leading to concerns about malnutrition as the indigenous people turn to a Western diet for the first time.

This year is the United Nation’s International Year of Quinoa, as the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation recognises its resilience, adaptability and “potential contribution in the fight against hunger and malnutrition”.

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