Quinoa and Soy: the story of health, fashion and starvation

Quinoa and Soy: the story of health, fashion and starvation

Note: This is a very old blog that I wrote in 2013 but realized that it is even more relevant today. It is one of my favorite blogs, and I had loads of fun writing it.

In this blog, I focus on two of the biggest intruders in the area of ancient foods. They are ancient foods themselves. Keep reading for a classic story of how too much good in the wrong place and time can be indistinguishable from evil. 

Both quinoa and soy aren’t grains, but they are the faddest grain-alternatives to hit us in a long while. They are not only high in protein, they are even complete proteins, a very rare feat in the plant kingdom. For Indians, they fit very nicely into our regimented world of traditional foods. Quinoa substitutes for sabudana and rava so well in upmas and pulaos (the aftertaste is a sacrifice at the altar of one’s health -whatever that may mean these days). And soy, well, it substitutes for anything, for grains of course, for beans, for milk and more popularly, in its heavily processed form, for meat.

What follows is a story of the devastation that has trailed behind these incredibly versatile grains (or grainoids). There are untold stories behind every fad, behind every new super-food that will “transform your health”. Changing traditional diets comes with a cross that we must bear, or that others must bear for us.

High protein: check. Traditional food: check. Low fat: check. No dead animals: check. In fact the New York Times notes that NASA scientists declared quinoa to be the perfect balanced food for space missions.

The untold back story of Quinoa exploded with a  NYTimes article in early 2011. Several other magazines have since noted that Quinoa’s price in Bolivia has tripled since 2006 making it unaffordable to many of those that cultivate it. In Lima, chicken is now cheaper than quinoa and of course imported junk food is too, as it is anywhere else. Somehow high processing costs + high transportation costs always translate to super cheap food. Sadly, over the same time period, quinoa consumption in Bolivia has dropped by a third, being replaced by rice, noodles and junk food. Malnutrition among children in quinoa-growing areas has risen.

Diverse rotation farming in Peru and Bolivia has turned into mono-cropping of quinoa over the years, a very dangerous practice potentially stripping soil of nutrients, and creating an extremely unbalanced environment. An article published in 2010 in The Guardian noted a similar story with asparagus cultivation (also in Peru). Asparagus is a water intensive vegetable that has caused drought like conditions in its native Inca valley, with a massive decrease in the water table. Mono cropping is involved in soy cultivation as well, and will continue to be a cultivation method for all fad foods that have a sudden increase in demand.

Vegetarians are one of the biggest markets for Quinoa and Soy. Given that the ethics of veganism hinges heavily on ecological destruction due to confined lot animal operations (i.e., factory farms), the ecological footprint of soy (which is the go-to food of choice for a majority of converted vegetarians) is ironical: Soy cultivation is one of the two main reasons for deforestation of the Amazon (the other being cattle ranching, quite justly). 

The upsides to the stories are similar. Asparagus cultivation has resulted in 10,000 new jobs in the Inca valley, leaving us with the question: should one buy asparagus from Peru so the farmers can go to work, or not buy it so their children don’t face drought? Ditto for Quinoa, except the scale of jobs created in Peru and Bolivia is much higher.

But we don’t really buy Soy and Quinoa because we can send more people in the Altiplano to work. Neither do we eat them because they are tasty(most people can attest that both foods have a highly acquired taste, the activation energy for which is high enough that you would have to be sufficiently motivated otherwise).

Traditional food habits of Asians have long been a justification for the safety of eating Soy. But as much respected food author and science writer Michael Pollan says, there isn’t really much record of any culture eating as much soy in as many forms as is being consumed now. Quinoa, or the other hand hasn’t been modified much yet. It is likely safe, but perhaps unnecessary.

The point that I hope this discussion leads to is: Eat local. Eat traditional. Eat traditional and local if you can. What if traditional is vegetarian? Can one eat local and vegetarian? I am not sure, if you don’t live in a tropical country. For sure, one can’t eat local and vegan in temperate climates. What does one eat in winter? What then, is the most ethical way to eat?

The scale is tight: there lie “health”, animal welfare and fashionable tastes on one side, and ecological devastation, malnutrition, genetic modification and jobs on the other. What will you choose?


  1. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/20/world/americas/20bolivia.html?_r=2&
  2. http://personal.lse.ac.uk/weinhold/Soy%20Paper_310.pdf
  3. http://commodityplatform.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/factsheet_paraguay_final_120609.pdf
  4. http://marcfbellemare.com/wordpress/2013/01/quinoa-nonsense-or-why-the-world-still-needs-agricultural-economists/
  5. http://michaelpollan.com/articles-archive/michael-pollan-answers-readers-questions/
  6. http://www.examiner.com/article/the-politics-of-soy
  7. http://environmentalcommons.org/cetos/articles/soystory.html
  8. http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2110890,00.html
  9. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jan/14/quinoa-andes-bolivia-peru-crop
  10. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/sep/15/peru-asparagus-british-wells
What on earth is a healthy breakfast?

What on earth is a healthy breakfast?

A good healthy traditional breakfast.

There is something to be said about an earthy, grounded breakfast dripping with ghee. Sometimes sweet, mostly not. Always filling the stomach and satisfying the mind.
What does this bring to your mind?

To me, it brings visions of a plate of Idli, Vadai, sambar and Pongal, with a nice big tablespoon of ghee.

What is isn’t, never should be is a bowl of Kellogg’s (or any other) cereal with non-fat milk. There’s something terribly wrong (though inviting) about that vision.

This post is dedicated to us finding that sweet spot for our family’s healthy breakfast. It is the start of the day, and getting this right makes it easy to move ahead with some awareness.

So what is a healthy breakfast? What is healthy?

The word healthy has moved through so many interpretations that it is hard to find 2 people that agree on what it means anymore.

Some of us would assume that a low-fat diet without saturated fats like butter and a diet with 3 servings of milk and whole grains is healthy. Unfortunately, this is now outdated.

What, then, is a healthy meal? There are really only two sustainable definitions of healthy that don’t change with time:

  1. The food is ancestral – either from the land of your birth, or the land where you live.
  2. The food is whole – i.e., every part of it comes from a plant or animal, unprocessed.

A lot of times, in these times of extreme food processing, ancestral food is not enough. So here is the mantra for healthy food: Whole food, if possible traditional/ancestral.

What about gluten, dairy, sugar and all the foods that are commonly called inflammatory? Well sugar, being ultra-refined is out, but wheat and dairy are not just ancestral, they can also be whole foods.

There are studies after studies that have shown that a significant number of people can’t digest gluten, the predominant protein in wheat. Consumption of wheat has a positive correlation with intestinal permeability and auto immune disorders1.

Dairy sensitivity is rampant as well – and no, this isn’t just lactose intolerance. Removal of dairy has positive correlations with reduction in ear infections.

  1. Treat wheat, dairy and sugar as treats or luxuries rather than staples. Favor whole, unprocessed versions of the foods

I am ending with two versions of a healthy breakfast (that I didn’t come up with).

  • Modern whole food easy breakfast high in protein (Overnight Oats)
    • Soak ½ cup oatmeal, 1 tbsp chia seeds, 4 chopped almonds, 1 tbsp maple syrup in ½-1 cup almond milk overnight.
    • Warm it if you want it warm.
    • In the morning, add berries, or cacao powder or mango, or any fruit.

Traditional whole food breakfast, high in protein (Pesarettu)

  1. Soak 1 cup whole mung beans overnight.
  2. In the morning grind (preferably in a vitamix) the beans, with as much water to make into a thick batter, salt, 1 green chili, 1 bunch cilantro, and garlic (if you want the kick)
  3. Pour into crepes, oil generously with ghee.
  4. Sprinkle with cilantro and chopped onions if you like!

Welcome to an illumined morning with Adi Shankara’s powerful words:

Pratah Smarami Hridi Sansfuradatmatavam
Sacchitsukham Paramaham Sagatim Turiyam
Yad Swapna Jaagara Sushuptam Aveti Nityam
Tad Brahma Nishkalam Aham Na Cha Bhoota Sangaha.

To summarize: In the early morning, I meditate on the blissful essence of my being that transcends the three states of dream, sleep and wakefulness. I am that undivided state, not this assembly of elements.

Making sense of Coconut Oil and the American Heart Association

Making sense of Coconut Oil and the American Heart Association

For the very first time, I feel tired and frustrated with nutritional research. It is beyond tiresome to present conflicting information to the general public and expect health to be a result of changing / evolving science.

The American Heart Association has said that coconut oil is saturated fat and we need to avoid it. This is SO NONSENSICAL to me that first I thought I would write a scientific rebuttal. I am not going to do that because of Gary Taubes’s excellent write-up right here.

I am instead going to talk about how I look at the conflicting science.

Nutritional science about fats/starches is broadly divided into two camps:

  1. Those that believe the saturated fat hypothesis
  2. Those that believe that saturated fat in moderation is perfectly healthy, and that the real enemy is sugar and processed oils.

Is it just belief? Not really… There are scientific studies on both sides, and each side thinks the other side has skewed science. There is a ton of “cherry picking” on both sides.

You have probably heard the saturated fat or lipid hypothesis so many times, i.e., eating more saturated fat leads to increased LDL and that increased LDL increases your risk of cardiovascular disease.

In fact you likely think that is the gospel truth, where it is just a theory!

This is outdated science. In fact Gary Taubes in his rebuttal explains the fact that the American Heart Association has simply reviewed all the literature already available and has decided on discrediting data that did not fit the lipid hypothesis.

This is bias at best and cherry picking at worst!

There is a ton of data emerging that indicates that saturated fat does not increase LDL and that LDL is not an indicator of heart disease. Triglycerides are a way better indicator of heart disease.

So what’s a person to do? Who to believe? You know the science will change. You know this information is temporary.

Sit back, relax and let’s go back in time. Imagine you are sitting face to face with your great grandmother, or her mother. And you told her (perhaps you are from South India) that coconut oil and ghee were bad for your health. She would laugh you off!

  • And rightly so, since your country of origin (if Indian) has been consuming it for more than a thousand years. Tradition doesn’t lie, especially food tradition. It is what is now known as empirical data.
  • Remember that ALL oil is a refined food devoid of nutrients but fat. No oil is meant to be consumed in tubs. And the hotter the place you live in, the less oil you need. But you DO need it.

The American Heart Association, in what I consider the biggest betrayal, recommends vegetable oils over coconut and butter. These highly processed, oxidized, shelf unstable oils are virtually unknown variables in food tradition.

NO COUNTRY IN THE WORLD, no culture has consumed these oils EVER before the 21st century! Coconut Oil? Check. Ghee? Check. Butter? Check. Peanut/Olive/Sesame/Mustard Oils (cold-pressed of course)? Check!

Let US check our common-sense back in. We don’t need the American Heart Association to be telling us what is healthy. We just need to listen to our Grandmothers, and their grandmothers, and thousands of years of empirical evidence.

As I pour a heaping teaspoon of Ghee on my Idli, I bid you adieu, and hope you will do the same!