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The magical health wonders of quinoa

Could quinoa solve food security and health problems for Egyptians? Ahram Online asks a pool of experts

Ingy Deif, Tuesday 22 Oct 2013
quinoa photo: Fao
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Views: 3784

In Egypt, where the majority of the population relies on a high calorie diet that is low in nutrients, there is a growing health problem that is particularly affecting women and children.

The United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Egypt is focussing on projects that can contribute to improving the situation. 2013 has simultaneously been declared by the UN as the ‘International Year of Quinoa.’

The campaign will highlight the nutritional value of this old golden grain, which has a strategic role to play in the nutritional security of humanity. The UNFAO is facilitating the International Year of Quinoa in collaboration with governments, UN agencies, local communities and NGOs.

Ahram Online discussed the health benefits of quinoa with a panel of experts from the UNFAO, including: Ms. Fatima Hachem – Senior Nutrition and Consumer Protection Officer, Mr. Mohamed Dost – Plant Production and Protection Officer, and Ms. Raffaella Rucci – A communication specialist.

AO: How would you describe the nutritional value of food available to Egyptians, and what are the main health implications of this?

FAO: Egypt is witnessing increasing obesity rates, especially among women, concomitantly with high incidents of stunting among children under the age of 5 years old. This coexistence of under and over-nutrition is referred to as the double burden of malnutrition. In addition, Egypt has high rates of anaemia among women and children. These factors combined should make nutrition a priority for policy makers, especially as it is closely linked to the human and economic capital of countries.

Studies that were undertaken on the composition of the Egyptian diet indicate that the majority of the population consumes high quantities of nutrient-empty calories - i.e. calories without many vitamins and minerals. This is because the Egyptian diet is becoming less diverse, relying heavily on bread, sugar, and oil, with less than the optimal quantity of fruit and vegetables to ensure good health. This is prompting an increase in diet-related diseases, such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, cancer and diabetes.

AO: What is the FAO doing to improve this situation?

FAO: In Egypt, the FAO is providing technical support and capacity building to the government, namely the Ministry of Agriculture, in order to improve the food and nutritional security of the country.

Among other interventions, we are currently implementing an Italian funded project: ‘Improving household food and nutritional security in Egypt by targeting women and youth.’ This project is contributing to the creation of income generating activities related to homestead food production and small livestock rearing. This will allow vulnerable households from the poorest villages of the country to supplement their income by locally marketing the food they produce. The project will establish Community Model Gardens and Junior Farmer Field and Life Schools (JFFLS) to develop the capacity of communities to produce safe and nutritious fruits and vegetables and to acquire good practice in rearing small animals.

A second crucial intervention to mention is the establishment of the Food Security Policy Advisory Board. The Board was established through a Technical Cooperation Project funded by the FAO, following the Egyptian Government’s request for technical support to strengthen the technical and institutional capacity of the Ministry to enhance food security policies. The Board is working to improve food security governance in Egypt through reinforced institutional and technical capacities, predominantly at the national level but also at the regional level, starting with Governorates in Upper Egypt.

A third initiative worth mentioning is the forum the FAO organised in collaboration with the European Bank for Development and the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation. This sparked dialogue on ways to increase the efficiency of Egypt’s agricultural sector and reduce its food trade deficit.

AO: Tell us more about quinoa; why is it the highlight of 2013?

FAO: The year 2013 has been declared the ‘International Year of Quinoa’ in recognition of the crucial role quinoa can play in eradicating world hunger, malnutrition and poverty.

Quinoa is the only plant food that has all the essential amino acids, trace elements and vitamins, and also the ability to adapt to different ecological environments and climates. Resistant to drought, poor soils and high salinity, it can be grown from sea level to an altitude of four thousand meters and can withstand temperatures of between -8 and 38 degrees Celsius.

In a world that faces the challenge of increasing production of quality food to feed a growing population, quinoa can offer an alternative food source for those countries suffering from food insecurity.

AO: What are the specific health benefits of the crop?

FAO: Quinoa is comparable in energy content to foods such as beans, maize, rice and wheat. In addition, quinoa is a good source of quality protein, dietary fibre, polyunsaturated fats and minerals. Nevertheless, while quinoa is a good source of many nutrients, it is important to consume it as a part of a balanced diet along with other food types to obtain good overall nutrition.

The health ingredients are as follows:

Protein: Quinoa is generally higher in protein quantity than most grains. Protein is made up of amino acids, of which eight are considered essential for both children and adults. When compared to the FAO’s recommended essential amino acid scoring pattern for 3 to 10 year old children, quinoa exceeds the recommendation for all eight essential amino acids.

Dietary Fibre: Dietary fibre is the indigestible portion of plant foods, and it is important for good digestion and to prevent constipation. A recent study of four quinoa varieties found the dietary fibre in raw quinoa is generally higher than most grains, though lower than that of legumes.

Fat: Quinoa contains more fat (6.3 g) per 100 grams dry weight than beans (1.1 g), maize (4.7 g), rice (2.2 g) and wheat (2.3 g). Fat is an important source of calories, and aids in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Of quinoa’s total fat content, over 50 percent comes from essential polyunsaturated fatty acids Linoleic (omega-6) and Linolenic (omega-3) acid. Three Linoleic and Linolenic acids are considered essential fatty acids because they cannot be produced by the body. Quinoa’s fatty acids have been shown to maintain their quality because of quinoa’s naturally high value of vitamin E, which acts as a natural antioxidant.

Minerals: On average, quinoa is a better source of minerals than most grains. It is an especially good source of iron, magnesium and zinc when compared to the daily mineral recommendations. A lack of iron is often one of the most common nutrition deficiencies. Quinoa is also high in the compound oxalate, which can bind to minerals such as calcium and magnesium, reducing their absorption in the body.

Vitamins: Quinoa is also a good source of B vitamins Riboflavin and Folic Acid compared to other grains, and similar in levels of thiamine. It also contains significant amounts of vitamin E, though the quantity seems to decline after processing and cooking (Koziol, 1992).

AO: What are previous experiences of cultivating it in various countries like?

FAO: Several varieties of quinoa were evaluated in Egypt, Iran, and Yemen, all of which provided excellent yields. In Egypt the trials were planted in the saline soils where most other crops could not have grown, and it was interesting to find out that quinoa can produce satisfactory yields under such conditions.

AO: In which part of Egypt did the cultivation take place? Was it costly?

FAO: It has already been cultivated in Upper Egypt in the saline soils there. It is not expensive to produce quinoa in Egypt as it is extremely drought tolerant and requires less water compared to other crops.

AO: Who are the entities expected to cooperate with FAO efforts in this regard?

FAO: The main cooperating parties with the FAO will be the Ministry of Agriculture, Government research institutes (ARC), and several universities.

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