a surprisingly complicated ethical question – to eat quinoa or not?

I’ve had a box of organic quinoa on my pantry shelf for a while now which I’ve been avoiding for a whole number of reasons.

First I’ve heard that the high price of quinoa being driven by demand from “yuppy vegans” in the affluent first world was making the ancient grain-like seed unaffordable for the people who live in Peru and Bolivia where the crop has traditionally been grown and is a dietary staple. If you want to read more about this – check out the recent article in the Guardian: Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?

Canada’s Globe and Mail has written articles both supporting and refuting the negative impact of the high crop price for the economies where quinoa is grown. The latest article, Killer quinoa?  pointed out that high crop prices have a net benefit for the producing nation. This makes sense to me. I’m guessing if we all stopped eating quinoa the price would fall and then there’d be a problem with the impact of the falling crop value.

However, I also doubt the net benefit of higher prices trickles down very quickly to the agricultural workers even if the economy as a whole benefits.

Eating quinoa it turns out, is a complicated ethical quagmire.

Ethics and economics aside, I have a theory that quinoa gives me a sore stomach and I’ve heard others say the same thing. Still, I like the taste, and that quinoa is high in protein and gluten-free. And since I had bought the box of quinoa on my pantry shelf prior to finding out about my ethical faux-pas, I decided to do a little research about why I was getting a sore stomach from eating it. It seems that a naturally occurring,  pesticide-like, soapy residue called saponin may be the cause of my stomach pain.

The trick apparently, is to wash the quinoa thoroughly in a fine sieve to remove all the residue. Once you think the water is running clear and the quinoa is completely rinsed – keep rinsing. Swirl the quinoa vigorously  Only when you can’t stand wasting another drop of water should you stop rinsing. Then and only then will you have removed enough of the saponin to produce quinoa that is easier on the stomach.

If you can’t bear the ethical dilemma or the stomach ache or the wasted water used to rinse the quinoa – adjust the recipe and use brown rice – which requires a slightly longer cooking time. In the meantime – this is a really delicious, vegan quinoa casserole.

You can eat this hot or cold – and if you serve it cold – go ahead and call it a quinoa salad.

Quinoa with broccoli, mushrooms and toasted almonds

1/4 cup natural slivered almonds

2-3 tbsp olive oil

1/2 red onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

3/4 cup quinoa, rinsed and then rinsed again

1  1/2 cups vegetarian stock

1/8 tsp red pepper flakes

225 grams or 8 oz of fresh mushrooms

2 crowns of broccoli, chopped and cooked

Toast the almonds by either cooking on a well-greased baking sheet at 350 degrees F for about 8 minutes (check them before – they burn quickly) or by sautéing on medium in a teaspoon or so of olive oil. Set aside.

In a large saucepan, sauté the red onion in 1 tbsp olive oil for a minute or two and then add the garlic. Continue cooking for another minute or so, then add the well-rinsed quinoa, stock, and red pepper flakes. Bring to the boil and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook for 20 minutes or so – or until the liquid is absorbed and the quinoa is tender.

Meanwhile, lightly cook the broccoli (microwave or steam) and saute the mushrooms in 1-2 tbsp olive oil until well-browned.

When the quinoa is cooked, add the broccoli and mushrooms – toss and move to a casserole dish. Top with toasted slivered almonds. Serve hot, cold or room temperature.


27 thoughts on “a surprisingly complicated ethical question – to eat quinoa or not?

  1. I still haven’t read the Guardian article I couldn’t help but notice doing the rounds on Twitter. To be honest I’ve never tasted quinoa, so I’m not sure what all of the hype is about. In my local store it’s ridiculously expensive which is exactly why I’ve yet to buy it!
    Love the idea of this stew, though. Some of my favourite ingredients.

    1. It’s so true Tracey! It’s a no-win situation. Still I’m having quinoa for dinner tonight. And I’m going to hope that in the end there is a net benefit to the countries growing it – AND that I don’t get a sore stomach. Everything in moderation?

  2. Excellent post, I have been reading a lot lately about the quinoa controversy and have also had second thoughts about it. Like you my bag of quinoa was purchased prior to the article and news regarding it. I like it but honestly can live without it very easily and probably will. I love your recipe and will make it, it sounds really delicious.

  3. I am right on track with ‘johnnysenough hepburn’, heard a lot, haven’t had the nerve to spend the money on it.I had not heard of the ethics. That can be said for many items; we try to do what’s right and only afterward find out the repercussions.I know that kelp was/is being cut back so much that abalone were losing their habitat, which directly affected otters who eat them, among other dilemmas.
    The world is a complicated place, huh?

    1. I didn’t know that about kelp – interesting. But even if we stayed home and grew all our vegetables – I guess there’d be an impact…. all we can do, as you say, is try and do what’s right! Yes – the world is complicated….

  4. I like quinoa and couscous. Quinoa is pricy. I haven’t cooked with it yet and am not sure if I will. This looks delicious!

    1. Hi Kenley! My little box of quinoa wasn’t too expensive -although in general it does seem very costly. It’s such a tough thing though because if the crop outprices itself – that cannot be good for the Peruvian and Bolivian economies either. If you do try it – a little goes a long way and it is wonderfully tasty – just be sure to rinse it THOROUGHLY!!! 🙂

    1. Hi Maria – yes – the stomach ache thing surprised me too – took me a while to figure out. I’d been using quinoa fairly regularly before I realized my stomach hurt every time. So then I googled it – hundreds of others said the same.
      I wish quinoa weren’t so complicated!

  5. This looks like the perfect way to use up the last of my supply, then its back to basics – lets see if its possible to buy a Canadian grown grain!
    LOVE YOU! Keep up the yummy work!

  6. Very interesting post. The NY Times also recently ran an article about the high rise in price of quinoa driving natives to eat cheaper (and crappier) food. I guess the same can be said for other products that, eventually, were imported or grown by more ethical companies that re-invested some of the profits back in the communities in the form of clinics, education and the like.
    And yes, do rinse REALLY well in cold water. Besides removing the pesticides, it will get rid of the slightly bitter aftertaste

  7. Thanks for dropping my blog and I appreciate your insightful comments. Absolutely agree with you about the fact that the same can be said for other crops – coffee is one very good example. I guess the next logical step should be fair trade quinoa. I’ll watch for it. And apparently we are about to start growing quinoa in the Canadian prairies.

  8. Hello! I just discovered your blog, and stumbled upon this post. The question of whether or not to eat quinoa has been on my mind until I recently discovered that about 30 farmers in France got together and decided to try to grow quinoa in France. And it worked! So now I have started using French quinoa, which is cheaper, and almost 100% the same as South-American quinoa, except… it doesn’t need to be washed! Yay. The taste is slightly milder, but still quite unmistakable. I have heard that farmers in the US are beginning to grow quinoa as well. What about Canada?

    1. Hi Darya,
      Yes – you’re right – we are growing quinoa in Canada now although last time I checked – I didn’t find it readily available in the supermarkets. Apparently that will all change by next year.
      So interesting that the French quinoa is milder and does not need to be washed.
      Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. It’s a pleasure to meet you!

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