South American Superfoods: What’s At Stake?

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As the author of Peruvian Power Foods, I’ve lately been getting emails asking me to address ethical questions about South American foods, especially quinoa. Though Peruvian superfoods have been farmed for thousands of years, their popularity in the US and abroad is new. On the one hand, money is flowing to traditionally poor economies in Peru and Bolivia that produce these foods. But popularity may also mean prices are driven up, such that the very people who grow and have traditionally consumed these foods can no longer afford them. So, what is right?

From my recent book on the nutritional and health value of foods like kiwicha, cacao, pichuberry, maca, and sacha inchi, it’s clear that I’m a proponent of incorporating certain traditional South American staples into a healthy eating plan – regardless of where one lives. But I also know that trends in food choices have an impact on the communities that grow these foods. I can speak only based on my experience as a dietician, and as a Peruvian. For questions on food production, I spoke with the heads of companies that import these foods (though none of them is an importer of quinoa, the product that originally sparked this controversy).

Like any serious dietitian, I focus on the food. My interest in Peruvian superfoods is not about just following some eating trend. I’ve lived in the US for two decades, and I have witnessed an increasingly intense debate about various aspects of our national food industry.

Working with clients, I see every day how difficult it is to find foods that are nutritious and taste good but are not processed or full of chemicals, pesticides, and hormones. It is important to me to be able to recommend for my clients whole foods that have both health and nutrition benefits that are still in their traditional form and that have not been stripped of their nutritional value by industrial farming.

As a Peruvian, I confess that it gives me great pride to see the gastronomy of my native country taking its place on the stage of global cuisine. Growing up in Peru, we were told in school, “We’re an ignorant cholo, sitting on a gold chair” Cholo is a slang word for a Peruvian, and the gold chair is Peru itself: a country rich in fisheries, minerals, and agriculture. While we lived among the riches of Peru, we Peruvians didn’t always have the tools to employ these food resources in the global market.

However, with global advancements in the import/export trade, alongside a growing popularity of Peruvian foods, now even French chefs are coming to Peru to learn how to prepare our traditional dishes. Moreover, 2014 has been deemed the year of Peruvian Cuisine by the Culinary Institute of America. This moment is an opportunity for me to promote the strengths of my culture along with the benefits of our food, benefits that, I am sorry to say, even many Peruvians may not be aware of. I am so proud to see Peruvian foods filling the shelves in American supermarkets, and based on my anecdotal experience, this feeling of pride appears to be mutual among most Peruvians.

In the course of writing Peruvian Power Foods I travelled to Peru, and while there I went to farms and markets, and I spoke with farmers and locals. I was told by many, how happy they were to finally make real money growing the same crops they had always farmed. While their own produce had become more expensive due to demand, they said they could now afford more variety in their diet because of their increased income. Of course, these were only individual conversations, and not an extensive survey. Still, they had an impact on me.

To learn more about the relationship between the importers and the farmers, I also spoke with the CEOs of three major companies bringing Peruvian foods into the US.

First, I wrote to Carlos Campos, CEO of Sacha Vida, and native Peruvian. His company imports sacha inchi, both seeds and oil, as well as maca. I asked him, Given that your company is involved in the production of Peruvian superfoods, what are your feelings on recent accusations that the farmers who produce these foods can no longer afford to eat them?

Carlos Campos responded “I think there is a big difference between the situation of farmers in Peru and Bolivia in this area and I think it’s important to separate the two. That said, the fact that farmers are not able to eat the foods that they produce is an issue in some communities and especially the ones who are exploited by local and foreign companies”

I also spoke to Michael Popescu, CEO of Pichuberry, a company that imports the pichuberry fruit, and asked him the same questions. Here’s his response:

“The underlying action of the accusing reports [about rising prices for superfoods in South America] is targeted towards American consumers and implies that a slow-down in the demand of certain foods is necessary so that price can remain stable to allow the commodities to remain affordable to native farmers and citizens. If this action is taken by consumers in the U.S. or other countries that import certain commodities, greater consequences to the producers’ industry should be expected. The farmers that we were trying to protect would be most vulnerable since businesses would face production failures. People would lose their jobs and businesses would be limited due to new production forecasts. Economic conditions would ultimately worsen for that particular industry and potentially that country, depending on how much the country is reliant on the particular industry.

I, like these CEOs, can’t speak to every South American food import. But I do think it’s important to become familiar with the companies that are doing the importing – where they stand and what steps they take to protect the farmers. We all need to inform ourselves about the sources of our food, and the conditions of its production. It seems like the old nutritionist’s rule still holds true: Always read the label.