A RECONSIDERATION OF ANDEAN NUTRITION
A paper prepared for presentation at
the Annual Meetings of the
American Anthropological Association
Winifred L. Mitchell
Michigan State University
The Aymara Indians of the Peruvian altiplano are frequently described
as undernourished, as are other indigenous highland populations. Peruvian
government officials, U. S. medical teams, and other observers routinely
assume an inadequate altiplano diet to be the root of various health
problems. Hall, for example, states,
Inadequate nutrition contributes to the high mortality caused
by infectious disease. Estimates made by the [Peruvian] National
Institute of Nutrition suggest that almost one-third of the rural
coastal and two thirds of the rural sierra residents consume less
than 75 percent of the calories and proteins essential for adequate
While such nutritional problems are reported for some regions, dietary
analyses reveal ecological zones in which indigenous food consumption is
quite adequate (see Mazess and Baker 1964 and Picon-Reategui 1976). This
paper presents a preliminary assessment of the dietary staple of a rural
altiplano community where the native population also appears to be
Challapujo, a rural Aymara community in which the author resided
from September 1976 to June 1977, is located eleven kilometers from the
market town of Ilave in the Department of Puno, in southern Peru. Situated
on the shores of Lake Titicaca, the community is at an altitude of 3800
meters. The economy is agricultural with the principal cultigens being
potatoes, quinoa (a grain, Chenopodium quinoa) and barley. Each family
owns two to three cattle and may also keep sheep, chickens, pigs or donkeys.
Llamas and alpacas are not raised in the community. As is typical of the
region, animals and their products are only rarely consumed. Their primary
use is for plowing, burden carrying, or production of products or offspring
to sell. (Fcr a complete description of the community's agricultural
ecology, see Brown 1978.)
The staple of the ChallapuJo diet is the potato, indigenous to
the region. It supplies roughly 50 percent of the caloric intake in the
diet and a major share of many nutrients, as discussed below. Reliance
on a single crop for the bulk of daily food consumption is frequently
condemned by investigators as a precarious base for good nutrition. It
is the heavy dietary reliance on the potato that leads local officials,
development personnel and scientific observers of the Aymara to assume
that their diet is inadequate. The Challapujo diet does not offer the
"well-balanced" combination of meat, cereals and vegetables traditionally
posited for good nutrition (For example, see Buck, Sasaki and Anderson
1968:40). Nor does it offer frequent consumption of animal protein which
is often relied on as "probably the most sensitive indicator of the quality
of nutrition in a community"(Buck, SasakiandAnderson 1968:40).
The people of Challapujo, however, appearAthe non-medically-t.ained
ODServer, at least, to jbe remarkably robust ,nd healthy ror a population
that does not follow the consumption patterns of "good nutrition". That is,
obvious signs of undernourishment are not present. Kwashiorkor does not
occur in the children. Other readily observable signs such as emaciation,
lack of energy, depigmentation or dryness of skin or hair are also absent.
These facts are not, of course, tantamount to proof of the complete
adequacy of the Challapujo diet or of the total health of the population.
However, they raise questions about the over-hasty condemnation of reliance
on the potato. In order to clarify this issue, I have analysed the potato
consumption of adult Aymara males in Challapujo. While such an analysis
cannot tell us whether young children or women also consume an adequate
diet, it suggests the need for a closer examination before the entire
population is dismissed as undernourished
The key to the contribution of the potato in the diet is the large
quantity in which it is consumed. Active adult Aymara men between the
ages of 18 and 45 were observed to consume a typical daily portion of
1500 grams of potatoes. During the months that this observation was made,
the majority of potatoes were consumed in their fresh form, although some
dehydrated potatoes, or chiio, were also eaten.
This figure is compatible with the amounts of potatoes and chufio
reported to be consumed in the district of Nu'noa, a high altitude zone
near Cuzco, Peru, by Mazess and Baker (1964) and Picon-Reategui (1976),
although they report that more than half of the potatoes consumed in Nunoa
are eaten as chuo. The more mild climate of the Titicaca Basin may reduce
the reliance on chuno in favor of the fresh potato which can be stored
successfully all winter and is eaten throughout the year when the harvest
has been normal. The dehydration process reduces the bulk of the potato
somewhat, which Mazess and Baker (1964: 345) suggest may facilitate consuming
such large quantities. However, since chuo is rehydrated to some extent
before it is eaten, the bulk remains considerable.
This bulk is distributed throughout the day, with potatoes usually
being consumed for breakfast and supper in soups with the additional
ingredients of the grains guinoa or barley. Onions, habas (broad beans:
Vicia faba) and condiments such as oregano or 2 a hot red pepper, may
also be included. Soups may be water or broth based and occasionally contain
bits of meat, poultry or fish or animal fats. Cheese and eggs are occasionally
included in a meal but in very limited quantities. At midday, people at
work in the fields consume a meal of dry boiled potatoes, sometimes with
a grain added.
The other ingredients of the diet are much more variable than the
potato, and exact quantities are not known. However, the information on
the nutrients supplied by 1500 grams of potatoes provides a basis for
preliminary judgement of the whole diet. Fifteen hundred grams of potatoes
supply 30 grams of protein and approximately 1500 calories. Table I
lists various nutrients present in the potato, with quantities supplied
by 1500 grams and percentages of recommended daily allowances shown.
Caution should be exercised in the interpretation of these figures since
they are based on analysis of U.S.-grown potatoes. The many varieties
and vastly different growing conditions for altiplano potatoes may result
in significantly different analyses. The papa negra, a dark purple variety,
may, for example, contain significantly higher quantities of iron. However,
Table I is offered here to demonstrate that over half the nutrients
listed are provided in quantities that meet or exceed the recommended
allowances. Yet, we are considering only approximately 50 percent of the
caloric intake of the average Challapujo male, calculated as follows:
Picon-Reategui (1976: 223-224) estimates the caloric needs of a
standard man in the district of Nunoa to be 2719 calories, 400 calories.
His calculation is based on a "reference man" 157.7 cm in height, weighing
57.6 kg, whose subsistence activity is herding, performed approximately
8 hours per day and using 123 calories per hour. I have taken Picon-
Reategui's calorie expenditure figures for daily activities except for
herding which I have assumed to be less strenuous than agriculture.
Substituting Harris's (cited in Brown 1978:61) 150 calories per hour
estimate for rigorous activity, I have arrived at an estimate of 3000
calories needed for the energy expenditure of a working Aymara man
weighing approximately 57 kilos. (This weight is from Buck, Sasaki and
NUTRITION IN 1500 GRAMS OF RAW POTATOES
Amount in 1500 grams
Percent of U.S. RDA (1973)
adjusted for 57 kg body weight"
ca. 6 g
(See Table II)
(See Table II)
Source: The Potato Board 1978--all but *
M Mazess and Baker 1964: 344.
Note: The Potato Board reported exceptionally low figures for calories,
carbohydrates, and fats for the potato; while their figures may
be accurate, the figures from Mazess and Baker are more typical
of those used in other literature.
**This adjustment suggested by Quandt (1979). Original Potato Board
values are for U.S. average 70 kg males.
Anderson's (1968:42) analysis of the altiplano community of Pusi.)
Potatoes thus supply roughly 1500 calories or 50 percent of the calories
required in this reference man's diet. Table II shows the percent of
daily requirements of protein and calories supplied. Since it was
observed that healthy adults maintain their body weights and activity
levels, we can conclude that the other 1500 calories are provided by the
rest of the diet (Brues 1979). As noted above, well over 50 percent of
the nutrients listed in Table I are provided by the potatoes.
CALORIE AND PROTEIN CONTRIBUTIONS OF
1500 GRAMS: OF POTATOES TO THE CHALLAPUJO DIET
Quantity Total Daily Percent of
supplied supplied requirement daily
in 100g in 1500g for Aymara requirement
potatoes man provided
Calories 100 kcal/g 1500 kcal 3000 kcal 50
Protein 2 g/100g 30 g 46 g 65
Derivation of the protein figure is more complex. The 30 grams of
protein supplied by potatoes are not all usable by the human body because
of amino acid patterning. There are eight essential amino acids which
must be consumed by the human body for protein synthesis*. Moreover,
they must be consumed in the correct proportions and be present in the
digestive tract simultaneously in order for absorption and utilization
by the body to occur. (See Lappe 1971 for an excellent introductory
discussion of essential amino acids.) Most vegetable proteins contain
the eight essential amino acids (EEAAs) in proportions different from
human needs while proteins of animal origin are closer to the human pattern
and thus more efficient for us to consume. It is this limit to
vegetable proteins which makes some observers heSitant about
the quality of a diet which derives its protein primarily from plant
sources. However, as Lappe (1971) points out, if vegetable proteins
are combined to complement their mutual EEAA deficiencies, adequate
protein can be gained from plant sources. Similarly, if a vegetable
product is eaten in enough quantity, even the limiting amino acids will
be present in sufficient amounts for the body to utilize quite a bit of
protein. The proportions of the EEAAs do not vary, but the gross quantity
of usable protein will obviously increase with the quantity of food. For
this analysis, the EEAAs in the potato have been compared to the propor-
tions of the same amino acids in human milk (iag per g of nitrogen). While
the hen's egg is often used as a reference protein (FAO 1970: 2), human
milk seems a better indicator of human needs (Brues 1979).
*Robinson (1978:43) reports that a ninth amino acid, histidine, has
been shown to be necessary for adults as well as children. This paper ha-
only dealt with the eight previously reported.
The protein in the potato must therefore be analysed for its gross
protein quantity--grams of protein per 100 grams of potatoes--and for
its quality or protein score. The protein score is derived from the
relative proportion of the EEAAs in the protein of a food to the proportion
of EEAAs in human milk protein (FAO 1957:30). The protein scores for the
EEAAs of the potato compared to human milk are given in the first column
in Table III. From these scores, the limiting amino acid, that present
in the lowest ratio, appears to be threonine, with a score of 70. That
is, the potato protein contains 70 percent of the threonine present in
human milk protein. This means that only 70 percent or 21 grams of the
potato protein consumed by ChallapuJo men is useful to the body.*
The figure for the percent of daily protein allowance given in Table
II is calculated as follows: The FAO (1973, cited in Hamilton and Whitney
1979:574) suggests a safe protein allowance of .57 grams per kilo of
body weight. This figure is then multiplied by the protein score of the
diet divided into 100, to allow for the usability of the protein. If we
assumesfor the purposes of this analysis, that nothing else is eaten to
raise the protein quality score, taking the score just for potatoes, we
have the following:
.57 gm/kg X 57kg = 32 gm usable protein required
32 gm X--;- = 46 gm potato protein required
Thus, Table II shows that the potato supplies 65 percent of the 46
grams of protein needed if the diet has an overall protein score of 70.
This 46-gram figure is generous compared to the 30-40 gm figure reported as
adequate by Hegsted (cited in Picon-Reategui 1976: 226-7) for a vegetable
diet consumed by 70 kg subjects. It is likely, therefore, that potatoes
supply more than 65% of the dietary protein without reducing the allotment
below safe levels.
*Investigators have reported protein utilization scores 6r biological
values of from 60 CLappg 1971:93) to 80 (FAO 1957: 28) for the potato.
PROTEIN SCORES OF SINGLE FOODS AND
FOOD COMBINATIONS COMPARED TO HUMAN MILK
Essential 1500g 1500g 1500g
Amino Acid Potatoes Quinoa Habas potatoes potatoes potatoes
+100 g + 50 g +-i00g quinoa:
quinoa habas + 50g habas
Isoleucine 76 100 86 84 79 84
Leucine 75 76 97 80 81 83
Lysine 84 97 99 88 88 90
Methionine 110 160 125 89 110
Phenylala- 120 94 110 110 118 110
Threonine 0 100 72 0
Tryptophan 98 51 89 85 81
Valine 99 70 100 93 100 95
Source for the amino acid content of foods, mg/g of nitrogen, FAO 1970.
*Note: This score is for total sulfur containing amino acids. The
methionine score for habas is .36, but some cystine (score 52) may
replace the low methi-oe(USDA 1957: 5), so the average of the two
Lowest scores for each colunm (limiting amino acids) are circled.
A diet based on a protein score or biological value of 70 or more is
considered satisfactory for human growth and maintenance (FAO 1957: 30)
if sufficient calories and protein quantities are present. The data
in Table II suggest that such is the case for Challapujo men since we
know that sufficient calories must be available or the body weights and
activity levels could not be maintained. It is reasonable to expect that the
remaining 35 percent or less of required daily protein could be obtained
from the other foods providing the other 50 percent of the calories in the
diet, We can conclude, then, that the potato offers a sound basis for
adequate protein consumption in the diet of Challapujo men.
It is also possible that the foods which are combined with the potato
in the daily diet may increase the quality of the dietary protein, raising
the overall protein-score by several points, i.e. increasing the utiliza-
tion of the protein consumed. This would occur if the EEAA pattern in
other foods complements that of the potato. Soup and meal recipes regularly
include the combinations of some quinoa, barley, habas or animal products
with the staple potatoes, making such protein complementarity likely.
In order to draw conclusions about such combinations we would need the
specific amounts of all foods as they are consumed together., Average
quantities per day per person are not specific enough to determine the
action of protein combinations since the EEAAs must be present in the
digestive tract simultaneously~for the combinations to result in increased
Table IIIcolumns 2 and 3 /show the protein scores for quinoa and
habas, with the limiting amino acid scores circled. Columns 4. 5, and 6
of Table III show the results of hypothetical combinations of 1500 grams
of potatoes with 100 grams of guinoa, with 50 grams of habas and with all
three foods together. Vhile the limiting amino acid in the combinations
remains threonine, that of the potato, the scores go up 7 to 9 points.
The results of these increased scores on food combination protein utiliza-
tion are shown in Table IV. A combination of 100 grams of quinoa
and 1500 grams of potatoes results in a protein utilization score of 79
as compared to quinoa (63) or potatoes (70) eaten separately. This means
that while 100 grams of quinoa supplies 12 grams of protein, only 7.6
grams are usable due to the low tryptophan content. When quinoa is combined
with 1500 grams of potatoes, however, the protein derived from the total
42 grams becomes 33.2 grams. This is an increase of 16 percent over 28.6
grams, the total amount of usable protein if the foods are eaten separately.
Putting this 42 gram figure into the formula on page 8, above, we find that
this protein combination with a score of 79 would exceed daily needs by .5 grams!
32 gm X = 40.5 gm potato/quinoa protein required
Similarly, protein score increases of 13 percent can be seen for habas
and potatoes and 22 percent for all three foods together.
While the exact consumption figures used above are hypothetical, they
suggest promising possibilities for the actual daily diet. Since such
combinations do occur, they may be the factor which results in a sufficient
protein intake for the Challapujen'os. The key to understanding the adequacy
of the altiplano diet lies in the study of the exact nature of these
combinations and the nutritional status derived from them. The preliminary
evidence, outlined in this paper, that the adult male diet is adequate due
to such protein combinations is certainly justification for further study.
Seasonal variation in food combinations, exact daily quantities
consumed, and eating habits for individuals of different age, sex, and
activity level should be analysed. Diet variations due to differences
INCREASED PROTEIN UTILIZATION-FROM POSSIBLE FOOD COMBINATIONS
Limiting Protein Protein, Calories- Usable protein
amino score per per if eaten if
acid portion portion separately combined
Potatoes Threonine .70 30g 1500 21g
(100g) Tryptophan 63 12g 345 7.6g
(50g) Containinc 45 11.7g 55 5.3g
+ 100g quinoa Threonine 79 42g 1845 28.6g 33.2g
+ 50g habas Threonine 71 41.7g 1555 26.3g 29,6g
+ 100g quinoa Threonine 77 53.7g 1900 33.9g 41.3g
+ 50 g habas (22% increase)
Table IV 'is modeled after Lapp6's(1971)food combination charts*
in social stratification would be of minimal concern in a traditional
community like Challapujo where economic variation, is very slight, but age
and sex variables may be important. Questions about whether the diet is
minimally adequate or whether it includes a margin for stress, disease,
growth, pregnancyt etc. are of particular relevance. Also, there is the
question of altiplano towns like Pusi, studied by a Johns Hopkins University
health team, where potatoes were reported as a staple food in only 27
percent of the households (Buck, Sasaki, and Anderson 1968: 48). Do
other staples like wheat replace the nutrition of the potato, or are
inhabitants of small towns like Pusi less well nourished than the
more traditional residents of the countryside? Finally, the importance of
applying the results of this type of research could be considerable.
It is possible that the study of such food combinations could reveal that
only slight alterations in proportions of foods could substantially
improve or deplete a diet.
The peasants of the altiplano have survived many centuries and numerous
political systems. Their traditional nutrition may be a vital part of
their successful adaptation and is worthy of our continued attention.
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1978 Fuerza por Fuerza: Ecology and Culture Change Among the
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1979 Personal communication.
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1968 Health and Disease in Four Peruvian Villages. Baltimore,
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1970 Amino Acid Content of Foods and Biological Data on Proteins.
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Hall, Thomas J,
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The Potato Board
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