Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

Food and Drink

And one thing leads to another... and another...



What was that saying about the butterfly effect that was so popular a few years back? There were a few variations, but it went something like this: when a butterfly flaps its wings in Place X, it will create a (take your pick: wind storm, hurricane, tornado) in Place Y.

But never mind the weather and Timbuktu. The butterfly effect is alive and well right inside your kitchen.

For example, take quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah), that unique and wonderful grain which is not really a grain but rather a seed from a plant that's a member of the goosefoot family (Chenopodium). As such, quinoa is more closely related to other chenopods like beets, chard, spinach and even tumbleweeds than it is to oats or rye.

Tasty, versatile, quick and easy to prepare, quinoa has been the darling of vegetarians and others for ages because of its excellent nutritional value. The Incas used it as a special food for soldiers; NASA identified it as an ideal food on long space missions because of its life-sustaining properties.

For a plant, quinoa stands out because it's a balanced source of amino acids, making it a complete protein. Plus it's also a good source of iron, magnesium, phosphorous and fibre.

Quinoa's relatively high protein content is pegged variously at 12-18 per cent, although Harold McGee, the world-renowned authority on the chemistry of food and cooking, lists it at 13 per cent, just one per cent less than the average protein content of wheat. However, wheat is hard to pin down in that regard as there are 30,000+ varieties and some, like durum, einkorn, emmer and spelt, contain as much as 15-17 per cent protein

Still, as a nutritional plant source high in protein, quinoa is a dream crop, especially because it can thrive in demanding places with poor soil and challenging climates such as the high Andes, where it originated and most of the world's supply comes from. ("Quinoa" is a corruption of the original Quechua name, "kinwa".)

Now that everybody, including my mom, has discovered the joy of cooking with quinoa  - even Costco has big three-pound bags of the organic stuff - the butterfly wing flapping from Pemberton, BC, to Asquith, Saskatchewan, and beyond is having gale-force effects back on quinoa's roots in the Andes.


According to a recent article in The New York Times, the skyrocketing demand for quinoa in "rich" countries in North America and Europe has been one of those proverbial double-edged swords.

The booming demand for the pseudo-cereal has bolstered the income of farmers who are growing it in some of the poorest regions in South America, namely the high, arid mountain plains in southern. But, like all good things in the free market economy, the increased demand - spurred on by well-meaning foreign aid organizations that encouraged quinoa's export to enhance local economies - has also meant increased prices worldwide.

Quinoa prices have almost tripled in the past five years, including in Bolivia where the consumption of quinoa has fallen by about one-third during the same time. High prices have rendered it unaffordable for many, neatly plucking the nutritional benefits out of the hands of those who most need it.

"As it's exported, quinoa is now very expensive," said María Julia Cabrerizo, as quoted in the NYT article. She's a nutritionist at the Hospital de Clínicas, a public hospital in La Paz. "It's not a food of mass consumption, like noodles or rice."

You got it: as we toss aside noodles and rice as the centrepiece for our favourite sauce-and-salad meals, partly for nutritional reasons and partly for novelty - or "changing tastes" as marketers like to say - Bolivians are choosing the opposite.

However, it's a choice often driven by necessity. One street vendor said he adores quinoa, but now walks away from it at the market because he can't afford it. And it's not a healthy choice. While malnutrition on a national level has fallen over the past few years in Bolivia due to aggressive social welfare programs, according to Ms. Cabrerizo, studies have shown that chronic malnutrition in children had climbed in quinoa-growing areas in recent years.

As in so many other cultural precincts - Thailand and Mexico come to mind - more money means that more processed foods like noodles, white bread and baked goods are more affordable and more available, ergo changing tastes.

I think of the marketing guru from Texas I met at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok who was there to study which colours on processed food packages were most enticing to Thai consumers. This in a nation where take-out food was wrapped in banana leaves.

Young Bolivians are especially hot on the trail of noodles. Sound familiar?

As for that saying about the butterfly wing-flapping, it was originally coined by Edward Lorenz, a meteorologist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Lorenz died in 2008 at the age of 90.

During his long and illustrious career he tried hard to explain why it was so difficult to forecast the weather and ended up starting the scientific revolution called chaos theory. According to the MIT News , Dr. Lorenz was the first to recognize what's now called chaotic behavior in the mathematical modeling of weather systems.

In the early 1960s, he realized that small differences in a dynamic system such as the atmosphere - or even models of the Earth's atmosphere - could trigger huge and often unsuspected results.

No wonder so many scientists today go nuts when they see the vast amounts of carbon we humans are pumping into the atmosphere, especially by projects like the oil sands, and there are no corresponding changes in our policies or our behaviour. What a black butterfly wing flap that is!

But back to Dr. Lorenz: His observations led him to create what became known as the butterfly effect, a term that grew out of a paper he presented in 1972 called "Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly's Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?"

The answer: it's possible! Think about that with every choice you make, at the grocery store and otherwise.


Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer on whose desk sits the wing of a Rajah Brooke Birdwing butterfly that she found on a riverbank in Malaysia where the butterflies extract dissolved minerals from the sandy soil.