How quinoa is used to give everyday foods a better image

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 February, 2015, 6:24am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 February, 2015, 6:24am

I felt so virtuous while munching on some quinoa chips that I'd picked up at a recent health food and sustainable living expo. Then I turned the bag around, and found out what was in there.

One 28-gram serving, or about 32 chips, contained 150 calories, eight grams of fat, 19 grams of carbs (of which one gram is dietary fibre) and two grams of protein.

That isn't too far off the nutritional value of regular potato chips. A same-sized serving of Lay's Classic potato chips has 160 calories, 10 grams of fat, 15 grams of carbs (of which one gram is dietary fibre) and two grams of protein.

My munching stopped. Isn't quinoa the grain that's earned "superfood" status and been praised by scores of devotees for its high nutritional value? Wasn't it described as the "golden grain of the Andes" because it was packed with protein, dietary fibre, vitamins and minerals?

At the very least, shouldn't it be more nutritious than a regular potato?

Yes, yes and yes. That's all true, but it's not necessarily the case when quinoa has been reincarnated as chips and, increasingly, other everyday snacks and staples.

Keen to exploit the popularity of quinoa, food companies have been rolling out products that boast the "mother grain of the Incas" as an ingredient.

Two weeks ago at the Lohas (lifestyles of health and sustainability) Expo in Wan Chai - a trade fair for natural, organic and green living products - there was Belgian quinoa chocolate, French quinoa-orange-cinnamon biscuits, quinoa pasta and the chips I ate.

An American distillery has even turned quinoa into whiskey. The Corsair Distillery in Tennessee combines malted barley with red and white quinoa grains to create the beverage, which has reportedly received great reviews.

The surest sign that quinoa has moved from fringe to mainstream is the update of the breakfast classic, Cheerios.

Last month, General Mills introduced Cheerios + Ancient Grains, made with small amounts of quinoa, kamut wheat and spelt, along with the traditional oats. Peek at the label and you'll find per 24-gram serving: 90 calories, 1.5 grams of fat, 19 grams of carbs (of which two grams are dietary fibre and five grams are sugar) and three grams of protein.

That's quite similar to original Cheerios, except that it packs one gram less dietary fibre and five times more sugar.

Most consumers, however, just look at the big picture - the words "quinoa" or "ancient grain" - and assume the product to be healthful. That's an illusion that we all fall for, me (and my bag of quinoa chips) included. Scientists call this the "health halo effect", something which leads people to overestimate the overall healthfulness of a food based on one narrow attribute.

The same phenomenon surrounds foods labelled "organic". In a 2013 study by Cornell University's Food and Brand lab, participants recruited from a shopping mall in New York were asked to evaluate products - two yogurts, two cookies and two potato chip portions.

One item from each food pair was labelled "organic", while the other "regular". In truth, all product pairs were really organic and identical.

The "organic" label greatly influenced the participants' perceptions. The "organic" cookies and yogurt were estimated to have significantly fewer calories, were said to taste "lower in fat", and consumers were willing to pay up to 23.4 per cent more for them. "Organic" chips seemed more appetising and "organic" yogurt more flavourful.

An American distillery has even turned quinoa into whiskey

The best way to navigate around the burgeoning health food marketplace is to read nutritional labels carefully and to check ingredients lists.

I bought a pack of Late July Organic Chia & Quinoa Tortilla Chips recently, and its ingredients list reads: whole ground corn, expeller pressed sunflower oil and/or expeller pressed safflower oil, chia seeds, quinoa, sea salt.

As the ingredients are listed in decreasing order according to weight, it means these were pretty much typical tortilla chips in quinoa's clothing.

Virtually all flour industry products can be made from quinoa whole grains and flour, according to the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (which named 2013 the International Year of Quinoa). The advantage of using quinoa as a flour alternative is that it caters to the demand for gluten-free products.

I'll still munch on those quinoa chips. But I'll be paying more attention to my waistline while at it.



What a pickle


Kimchi, a dish of seasoned vegetables and salt, has been eaten for many years, but it seems the South Koreans are now making a big push to elevate their traditional food to global health superstar status. The World Institute of Kimchi, a government-affiliated research organisation, had a huge booth preaching the benefits of kimchi, which include boosting immunity, preventing hypertension, reducing obesity and alleviating atopic dermatitis.


Oils under pressure

Almond, walnut, pumpkin seed, rapeseed, tea seed, hemp seed - the cold-pressed oil list goes on. These seed oils are extracted without the use of chemicals or solvents at temperatures below 40 degrees Celsius, which ensures that all the natural goodness within the seeds is preserved. The oils are said to be a natural source of vitamin E, which is an important antioxidant, and omega 3 and 6 essential fatty acids.


Chocolate in the raw


Similar in philosophy to cold-pressed oils, raw chocolate is made with cacao dried at low temperatures rather than high-heat roasted. This preserves nutrients such as iron, zinc, magnesium, copper and vitamin C, and results in a higher level of antioxidants than regular chocolate. It's definitely yummy - once you get over the fact that, gram-for-gram, it's almost 10 times more expensive than a Snickers bar.