The Cost of Costco Quinoa

by Anne Bennett on March 20, 2011

Health food aficionados will be happy to know that quinoa is now available nationwide at Costco. But its availability in the US does not come without a cost.

First of all, what is quinoa? It’s the edible seed from a flowering plant related to beets and spinach. In America we consider quinoa to be either a grain or a cereal; it is neither. It is a pseudo-cereal, which means that it resembles cereal grains but is not a member of the grass family.

Bolivian quinoa harvesters

So nutritious is quinoa’s balance of protein and amino acids that decades ago NASA considered it as a food to be used in long-duration manned spaceflights. Thus began quinoa’s road to world-wide popularity, and the aforementioned cost.

The New York Times reports that quinoa, which is cultivated high in the Andes mountains of Bolivia, has become so successful a crop that its price has tripled in the last five years. Consequently, native Bolivians who have been eating it for hundreds of years can no longer afford it. They are replacing quinoa with cheaper, less nutritious foods such as noodles and white rice.

An unsurprising repercussion: young people in Bolivia are fast developing a preference for these cheap, starchy staples as well as for other widely available Western processed foods. They would now rather down a  Coca Cola than a more nutritious, traditional drink made with quinoa flour and sugar.

The result? Although the Bolivian government has witnessed an overall decline in malnutrition in recent years, chronic malnutrition has begun to rise again in children in quinoa-growing areas. Another cultural downside, where processed food takes hold, obesity follows.

Bolivian dog guarding his Coca Cola stash

It seems that no matter where you live in the world, junk food has an irresistible allure that is ubiquitous and unremitting.

I am thus ambivalent when it comes to the ready availability of quinoa at my local Costco, and I feel vaguely guilty even considering buying it. From a global marketing perspective, does this make sense? I don’t know. Please, someone with more economic expertise in these matters, educate me.

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