The November issue of The Blue and White will be arriving on campus momentarily.  Meanwhile, enjoy selections from the current edition on Bwog.

At first it seemed innocuous enough: a couscous-like, gluten-free, and protein-rich alternative to rice. What damage could it possibly cause? Formerly confined to the lower shelves of Whole Foods and other “informed” markets, within the past few years quinoa (KEEN-wha, not ki-NO-ah, folks) has blossomed. It made its mainstream debut in supermarkets’ premade salads, rapidly rose to prominence in university dining halls across the nation, and now regularly appears on both family dinner tables and the fine china of Manhattan’s swankiest restaurants. It is more than a passing trend–this is no mere bubble tea. Quinoa, it seems, is here to stay. But in the face of the grain’s meteoric rise, one cannot help but ask: how did it happen?

Quinoa is classified as a member of the goosefoot family of plants, and despite appearances, is a close relative of spinach. Botanically speaking, the plant’s edible seeds are “pseudograins,” meaning that while it is not actually a grain, it can be used like one, and eaten either boiled or ground into flour. For this reason, it has long enjoyed a well-deserved cachet amongst those afflicted with gluten allergies. But the gluten-free crowd alone cannot account for the recent upswing in the miracle grain’s popularity.

Vegetarians and those more cognizant of their protein intake have turned towards the ringed, Saturn-like grain. Unusual for a single plant, quinoa has a perfect balance of amino acids, making it a complete protein. Olivia Burke, CC ‘12, an organizer of Columbia’s Community Supported Agriculture program and a resident of the veggie-friendly, famously earth-loving Potluck House, “wholeheartedly endorses” quinoa. And why not? The grain boasts high fiber and iron counts. Crowds are still swarming toward this product, even though it is comparatively more expensive than its more mainstream grain competitors, such as rice and barley.

The evangelists of healthy eating at Columbia Dining Services have in the last few years taken a cue from the earthy-crunchy set and begun incorporating quinoa into dining hall menus. Columbia, perhaps more so than anywhere else, displays the superfood’s success. In 2008, Dining Services used a respectable 200 pounds of quinoa. By the next year that number had quadrupled to 800 pounds, and projections for 2010 estimate that an astounding 1000 pounds of quinoa will have been eaten by year’s end–all in addition to the 360 pounds of quinoa-based breakfast blend that, mixed with yogurt and fruit, has become wildly popular amongst John Jay diners.

This extensive North American intake might surprise the Incans, the first consumers of quinoa. In fact, the word “quinoa”–along with “jerky”–is one of only two words in the English language derived from Quechua, the indigenous Andean tongue. And lest you think it’s overly colonialist that the only two words English took from the destroyed Incan culture pertain to food, you should also know Columbia just started offering Quechua as a foreign language this year. Now you can nourish your stomach and mind with all things Incan.

On paper the grain’s surge in popularity makes sense. It takes a mere 20 minutes to make and is incredibly good for you. In retrospect, quinoa seems to have been destined for greatness since its days in the Andes. But should we fear a possible health crisis from our newly elevated intake? Quinoa devotees are so loyal, so passionate, it’s as if the grain is cultivating them. Just remember, there’s a reason the Incans aren’t around anymore.

–Brian Donahoe
Illustration by Louise McCune