Quinoa beyond the hype

Published: 07-01-2015, | Member: GreenFood50®

Highly nutritious; many potential applications

Western consumers can hardly have failed to notice the hype surrounding Quinoa. And yet this superfood has much greater value than the public realizes. Breeders, farmers and food technologists alike are tapping into the many potential applications of this highly nutritious pseudocereal.

Quinoa (the seeds of the Chenopodium quinoa plant) are indigenous to the Andes. These small, round seeds with one flattened end were once a staple of the Inca diet. They lack gluten and are high in protein and fiber. They also pack a well-balanced mix of eight essential amino acids that every adult needs. This makes quinoa supremely healthy, which accounts for its growing popularity as a superfood in recent years and its availability across the globe. It is a particular favorite of the hipster generation.

But not only health-conscious consumers are showing an interest. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization proclaimed 2013 the Year of Quinoa in recognition of the crop’s potentially substantial contribution to global food security. Its value lies not only in its nutritiousness, but also in its tolerance of dry or salinized soil too. And in European agriculture, quinoa can be a valuable addition to the existing crop rotation of potatoes, sugar beets and wheat.

Wageningen UR Plant Breeding started breeding quinoa for cultivation in Western Europe around 1990. Initially, the breeding programs focused on reducing the plant’s need for sunlight so it could be cultivated further from the equator. In the next phase, selective breeding was aimed at ridding the seeds of saponin, a bitter-tasting substance that acts as a natural protection against birds.

This program has resulted in three quinoa varieties that can be grown in Europe. The French company AbbottAgra owns the licensing rights to these Wageningen-bred cultivars and sublicenses them to growers in the Netherlands, France, England, Belgium and Germany. In 2014, Europe grew a total of 1,500 hectares of quinoa.

Protein extraction
Western European quinoa is intended primarily as a superfood for consumers. But the product offers a wealth of other potential applications. At Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research, Marcel Minor researches ways to extract proteins from the seeds. “Quinoa’s amino acid composition is very beneficial,” Minor explains. “The seeds contain proteins that are a much better match with what people need than proteins from other cereals. That’s what makes it attractive to isolate these.”

Wageningen UR is currently taking a three-pronged approach: isolating the proteins, mapping the functionality of the protein fractions and other fractions, and developing applications for these proteins. The first focus is on a process known as dry fractionation, which is more sustainable and less expensive than wet fractionation. Minor: “We’ve already gotten pretty good at this dry fractionation. Our next step is to scale up the process.”

Apart from fractionation, Minor’s research group is also working on possible applications of the quinoa proteins. “We believe there are many. For example, one group of students has developed a chocolate milk-type drink that contains these valuable proteins. Another thing we’re working on is baby food containing quinoa protein. And we expect to come up with more products, such as enriched puddings and soups.”

However, it is not just the quinoa protein that shows promise, Minor says: “Its carbohydrate fraction has a lot of potential too. Its starch granules are relatively small, offering new texturing options for food products. And we think it could be used as a gelling agent as well.”

Versatile ingredient
Quinoa is starting to find its way into the food industry. Wageningen-based GreenFood50 is developing new applications for the seeds. Marc Arts, managing director at GreenFood50, says quinoa can be used in many types of food. “Quinoa has great potential for all sorts of applications, especially now that there’s a saponin-free, non-bitter variety available. We’re working with a whole grain quinoa, as opposed to the Andean variety whose saponin-containing coating has to be removed before consumption or further processing. There are many applications for both the whole grain and the separate fractions. Quinoa’s benefit is not just its high nutritional value; it is also an excellent ingredient for gluten free products.”

“Whole grain quinoa is already being used in an ‘Athletes Salad’ served at the Top Sport Restaurant at Papendal, the Dutch national Olympic training center, and in spelt-quinoa crackers. But quinoa can also be used in spreads, soups, bakery products and breakfast cereals. And there are infant and toddler foods that contain quinoa to boost their nutritional value, as well as ready-to-eat meals to which quinoa is added for extra bite.”

GreenFood50 collaborates with the Dutch Quinoa Group and buys quinoa from growers in northwestern Europe. “Western European quinoa is a local product. That’s a great plus from a sustainability point of view,” adds Arts. In December 2014 GreenFood50 opened a new R&D facility in Wageningen to continue its work on developing new applications.

Salinized soil crop
Meanwhile, Wageningen UR researchers are continuing their selective breeding to develop cultivars that can withstand salinized soil in a project entitled ‘Salt tolerant Quinoa for Food in China, Vietnam and Chile.’ Robert van Loo, researcher at Wageningen UR Plant Breeding, explains why this issue is important. “All over the world, lots of agricultural land can no longer be used to cultivate crops because its salt content keeps increasing due to sea level rise and sea water infiltration, insufficient fertilization and/or drought. More than a million hectares of soil has been salinized to such an extent that it can hardly sustain any crop at all. Quinoa has been grown in the Andes for centuries, particularly on salinized soil and along salt lakes. That makes quinoa plants very salt tolerant. Some varieties can grow even when irrigated with salt water (containing half as much salt as sea water). Such cultivars hold great potential for farmers in areas where nothing else can grow anymore.”

In September 2014, the Wageningen-led project won the Securing Water for Food Grand Challenge Award. The prize consists of $500,000 in annual funding for the project for the next three years. Van Loo explains how the money will be spent. “We’re working on developing local production chains for quinoa. But that’s not all. We’re also devoting a lot of time and attention to training and helping small farmers. These new quinoa varieties can contribute to better nutrition for a great number of people in areas where food is scarce. And this crop can also provide farmers in salinized areas with a higher annual income. Quinoa can make a real contribution to the global food security issue.”