Kale, quinoa, chia, almond milk. Chances are you’re familiar with these ‘super foods’ renowned for their superior health benefits. You may also be familiar with their high price tags—you can buy about 4 pounds of rice for every pound of quinoa, nine for chia seeds.
So why are these super foods so pricey? It’s not just that they’re highly coveted, making people more willing to pay a higher price tag. A lot of it has to do with sourcing and availability. These super foods also tend to be super finicky to grow and sometimes super difficult to find.
A recent scare of an impending kale “shortage” drove prices up on the popular leafy green, even though the scare was rather unfounded. Still, infestations routinely threaten kale crops, which ultimately drives up the price on the already expensive leafy green du jour. And other super foods like quinoa are exploding so fast that demand is reaching unsustainable levels. “Demand is the driver there,” Errol Schweizer, senior global grocery coordinator at Whole Foods told the New York Times. “We’re not going to run out, but we may see some price increase in quinoa.”
Quinoa has been growing in South American countries like Bolivia for ages. It’s a staple in indigenous diets revered for its high protein content. But quinoa is also a very sensitive plant, which can be hard to grow. Demand for quinoa took off in the U.S. amid the gluten-free craze and interest hasn’t slowed. You can find quinoa now in everything from chips to chocolates these days. Now, everyone wants quinoa, but the supply just isn’t there for big players like General Mills. They're stuck, for now, with the unsexy old standard: oats.
A similar situation is happening with chia seeds—another South American crop—revered for their high protein and omega fatty acid content. But chia has become so in-demand that its prices have made it unaffordable for many consumers, and hard to source for suppliers. Still, sales are poised to hit $1 billion for this seed that just a few years ago was only associated with the quirky Christmas gift--the chia pet.
Almonds are also in jeopardy. “I think we’re going to need to reconsider how we retail almonds because the prices are just not sustainable anymore,” Mr. Schweizer told the Times. “Using them in almond butter, for instance, when we could be promoting peanut butter instead.” Almond milk is now king of the nondairy milk category, but nutritionally, it's mostly water, says Tom Philpott of Mother Jones, "the almond-milk industry is selling you a jug of filtered water clouded by a handful of ground almonds." And with the crop in danger, is that really the best use of these nutritious nuts?
While supply and demand are issues impacting these ‘super foods’—there are other sources of stress on the crops, mainly climate change and declining pollinator populations.
Extreme weather patterns as a result of global warming are affecting growing seasons in South America, which is putting limits on quinoa and chia production, for example. And the California almond, which relies heavily on honey bee pollination, is in jeopardy as well unless bee populations can rebound. They’re being affected by colony collapse disorder, which is believed to be directly related to the use of common pesticides.
Customers have always been drawn to hot food trends. In today's market it’s whole foods (sold of course at Whole Foods), with a twist. While cabbage may offer similar health benefits to kale, it just doesn’t have the cool factor. Rice and barley are no quinoa, and flax or pumpkin seeds can’t touch the appeal of chia seeds. But if these super foods are routinely confronted with supply issues, just how super are they really? Perhaps it’s time we turn our appetites towards the less sexy and more sustainable foods.
"I'm not saying your almond milk habit is destroying the planet or ruining your health, or that you should immediately go cold turkey," says Philpott. "I just want people to know what they're paying for when they shell our for it." And while Whole Foods has no plans to stop selling these sensitive super foods, Whole Foods says it has been pushing "more varieties of nondairy milks," reports the Times, "in an effort to encourage consumers to drink something other than almond milk."
Find Jill on Twitter @jillettinger
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