Whilst incorporation of essential elements into the body of the plant is undoubtedly important for and to the wellbeing of the plant, their presence in those green organisms constitutes a major source of elements that are also essential for animals that ingest plant matter. Consequently, plants provide an important source of elemental nutrition for us, whether by their direct consumption or via our feasting on the animals that ultimately feed on the plants. And different plants differ in their ability to provide those all-important nutrients.
Take for example, quinoa – Chenopodium quinoa – a so-called ‘pseudocereal’ that originated in the Andean region of South America. A 185 g serving of cooked quinoa provides 29.6% of your RDA (recommended dietary allowance, now largely replaced by RDI – reference daily intake, ‘the daily intake level of a nutrient that is considered to be sufficient to meet the requirements of 97–98% of healthy individuals in every demographic in the United States’) of Mg. [Aha, the Mg connection – eventually…! – Ed.] Although this is not as high as, say, seeds of pumpkin, where a serving a third of that of quinoa provides 47.7% of Mg’s RDI, or spinach, which provides about the same RDI for Mg in an equivalent serving (although with about a seventh of the calories) and is in the same family as quinoa (the Amaranthaceae), quinoa is pretty good. Plus, that same serving of quinoa can also provide high levels of other essential nutrients – 58.5% manganese (Mn), 40.1% phosphorus (P), 40% copper (Cu), and 18.3% zinc (Zn). Given these fairly fascinating food facts it is perhaps no surprise that quinoa – despite its 4000 years history of cultivation and consumption in places today known as Ecuador, Bolivia, Columbia and Peru – has been widely touted as a ‘newly discovered, up-and-coming’ food. So much so that – apparently (well, it somehow passed me by…) – 2013 was the United Nations’ International Year of Quinoa. But this ‘must-have’ food status is not without its problems, and there are concerns that increased demand for quinoa has pushed up prices to the detriment of those people who traditionally used the crop as a staple of their diet in places like Bolivia. When will this little planet of ours be free of battles over food?
[For a more in-depth nutrient analysis of quinoa, visit the George Mateljan Foundation’s website. But, you might want to wait because – allegedly – Ethiopian tef is set to overtake quinoa as the next ‘super grain’. Despite quinoa not really being a grain, and tef producing probably the smallest grain in the world – you need approximately 150 of them to match the weight of a single grain of wheat (and the apparent irony of Ethiopia feeding the rest of the world has not gone unnoticed). But flour produced from tef, unlike wheat, is gluten-free and suitable for those who suffer from coeliac disease, a digestive condition where a person has an adverse reaction to gluten, which symptoms include diarrhoea, abdominal pain, weight loss and feeling tired all the time – Ed.]