Andean grains such as quinoa and the yacon vegetable are not only growing sales in supermarkets, health food and organic stores, but proving to be popular choices for chefs on restaurant and catering menus from Australia to North America. Caterers and restaurants from California to New York and Montreal are putting quinoa into their salad menus and prepared meals, from upmarket caterer Marita Lynn Catering in New York, Chicago’s iconic Cafe Berghoff and its catering arm, La Petite Cuisine home delivered meals in Montreal, to the Pizza Kitchen chain.

Contributing to the growth in quinoa sales are trends such as the rise of obesity, diabetes, food allergies and intolerances and increased environmental concerns, as well as its allergy-free status and nutritional profile.

Quinoa is a popular ingredient found in celebrity chef’s cookbooks. Mainly grown in Bolivia and Peru where it is a major export crop, this Andean grain has brought new source of income to indigenous people and peasant farmers of the Altiplano. Quinoa, seen as a superfood, is a gluten free product with a very high level of protein, 16 amino acids and a high level of calcium, and iron.

Marita Lynn of Marita Lynn Catering is a New York-based chef who was born in Lima, Peru and she caters for some of the top companies and institutions in North America, including the International Special Events Society.

Ms Lynn says quinoa is gluten-free and considered easy to digest, so it is a great choice for vegetarians, vegans and anyone gluten-sensitive. “After it is cooked, quinoa has a fluffy texture and a mild, almost nutty flavor. The grain is increasingly easy to find in supermarkets, as well as at any health food store or Whole Foods Market,” she says.

U.S. researcher Datassential from U.S., which provides the Menu Trends research, said one of its Top 9 Food Trends to follow in 2012 was High-Flavour, Healthful Ingredients. Datassential said:

“As health becomes a top priority among the public, restaurant operators will meet consumer demand for more healthful menu options in 2012 by focusing on high-flavor ingredients that increase the healthful perception or reality of the item. This approach has already been adopted at some establishments by way of the Meatless Monday campaign.

“More people are beginning to recognize the health benefits of reducing meat intake at least one day a week and are intrigued by the focus on other, perhaps unfamiliar proteins and flavors. But meatless dishes are just one example; including ‘powerfoods’ like quinoa and kale or specifying one type of cooking oil over another on menus also suggests high-flavor and good nutrition.”

Yacon shows its versatility in menus

Yacon, a tuber grown in Ecuador and Peru, looks like the sweet potato and is a perfect functional food and top ingredient to offer valuable sugar control and immune system bonuses to the human body. While yacon leaves are used for tea or infusions, the vegetable has been introduced to the market as syrup, in chips, crushed and powdered or sliced raw for salad dishes.

Called “apple or pear of the earth”, it has high levels of fructo-oligosacharides (FOS), inulin the human body does not absorb or convert into energy, allowing yacon to rank zero in the glycemic index scale. To get the most health benefits, the root needs to suffer minimum processing and alteration, warns Dr. Cass Ingram, a natural health expert and author of numerous books on natural food health ingredients.

U.S. restaurants using yacon include the Green Boheme of Sacramento, California, where chef Brook Preston also teaches classes on how to use raw foods and uses yacon in several dishes such as their house-made nachos.

Café Gratitude of San Franciso uses yacon and agave syrups to sweeten its desserts such as its Café Gratitude Raw Organic Ice Cream and its Sweet Gratitude Artisanal Frozen Dessert. Café Gratitude products are sold at its six other stores in the U.S. and at Whole Foods Market stores in California. Café Gratitude serves a menu of 100% organic, 100% vegan, local fare.

In Australia, several organic and sustainable vegetable growers in the Sydney region such as Going Organic and Field to Fresh are growing yacon and supplying mainstream and organic restaurants and chefs and health food stores with raw yacon. Chefs are using the yacon sliced raw in salads and stir fries, while Restaurant Atelier chef Darren Templeman sees yacon as a highly versatile food. He reduces the yacon to a heavy syrup to use in desserts and vinegar and uses it in salads and to accompany a venison dish.