Quinoa, a plant from South America, has recently become a hit in the food industry and is attracting consumers around the world. Enthusiasts and food companies alike boast of its nutritional virtues. But are we right to get excited?
Quinoa is popular. Just look at grocery store shelves to see all the quinoa products. In addition to the natural grain, you can buy flour, flakes and various preparations of a quinoa base. It can also be found in a variety of products, including food bars, chips, crackers, cereals, pasta and even bread.
Its versatility and exotic, practical, nutritious and gluten-free nature have helped propel it and increase its visibility. Cultivated for a long time in Latin America, this pseudo-cereal from the family Chenopodiaceae, the same family as spinach and beetroot, has become a staple on our plate.
According to Jordan Lebel, professor of marketing at Concordia University, quinoa occupies a privileged position in the world of grains and cereals because of its extraordinary career. Its history, its trajectory and its nutritional value provide all the elements to make it an instant success.
It should be noted that consumers are also more and more concerned with healthy eating; thus quinoa fits well in our menu. Its nutritional values are interesting, explains Marie-Josée LeBlanc, nutritionist and coordinator of Extenso: “It is a grain that has a good amino acid profile, a complete protein for vegans, interesting also because it is gluten free, so for people who can not eat gluten, it’s a food of choice that brings variety. But it’s not more interesting than other seeds, than other grains, than other foods.” Yet it has been called a superfood.
“The agri-food industry quickly jumped on the popularity of quinoa, and its values have been highly boasted to boost food sales,” Marie-Josée LeBlanc, Extenso nutritionist and coordinator.
Moreover, we can see the word quinoa prominently on many packaging. However, it is better to read the list of ingredients, because sometimes the product is ultra-processed with food additives, fat, salt, sugar and quinoa in small proportion, very far in the list of ingredients. According to nutritionist Marie-Josée LeBlanc, it is not because there is the word quinoa on the packaging that there is necessarily a lot in the product.
“When we can graft a health aspect to a fast food, the price can be increased by 10% to 15% because of this perception that we will associate with the product and often, people are ready to pay a little more for that,” says Jordan Lebel, Professor of Marketing at Concordia University.
Just because we have added quinoa in sweet bars does not make sweet bars a better choice, explains Marie-Josée LeBlanc. “It’s still a cereal bar that’s stuffed with sugar. Quinoa is far off the list. It’s a very, very long list of ingredients. This is not an interesting product at all and you do not really have to be fooled because there is the word quinoa on it.”
This is what psychologists call “compensatory beliefs”. We try to transfer to other products probably a little less healthy all the perceived benefits of quinoa. A more or less negative attribute of a product can be offset by a more positive attribute, so in this case, the health benefits of quinoa, says Mr. Lebel.
As Marie-Josée LeBlanc explains, we have to be careful with the term “superfood”, because the term superfood means that the food in question offers additional benefits in terms of health or from a nutritional point of view, but in the case of quinoa, the claim is not founded on science.
By the way, we can very well compare quinoa to other foods. For example, whole grain wheat contains more fiber, more protein and more calcium than quinoa. Potatoes can also compare to quinoa, and sometimes even be more interesting, because potatoes are very rich in minerals. With quinoa, we are simply adding one more food to our daily life for more variety.
According to Marie-Josée LeBlanc, we must stop thinking that there is a miracle food. “It’s all the food we eat that makes sure we have a healthy diet. You have to love what you eat, enjoy eating it, and quinoa is very much part of that. It is a food that is tasty, healthy but not a miracle.”