The UN’s announcement of 2013 as the year of quinoa has sent the humble South American seed into hip, health-conscious overdrive, meaning demand is outstripping supply and prices are being driven up. They have more than tripled since 2006.
Fans of the grain, which is rich in protein, vitamins and amino acids, will be pleased to know that scientists at Wageningen University and Research Centre are working hard to overcome issues which have previously limited its growth to the specific high altitude Andean conditions in countries like Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador.
These new varieties - Atlas, Pasto and Rio bamba - have been adapted primarily from two traits: Their non- saponins ('sweet') trait and their early maturing trait. These sweeter varieties can flourish in European growing conditions.
In fact according to Jason Abbott, the only farmer to be growing the crop on a commercial level in Europe, “our varieties do not need to be processed and can even be eaten raw.” His company has a licence for the new varieties for Europe, US and Chile and has been growing them in the Loire Valley in France in partnership with Wageningen since 2008.
Explaining this difference in taste, head of the research project Dr Robert Van Loo said, “our varieties do not contain a perceivable amount of saponins. The South-American materials do contain the bitter saponins and have to be processed - a sort of polishing away the outer layer and washing with water - and even then often more saponins are left in than occur in our non-saponin varieties that do not have to be processed.”
Food matrix expansion
In light of quinoa’s popularity boom, companies are already starting to think of ways to work the nutritionally beneficial ingredient into different food products both in seed and flour form, but flavour profiles remain a challenge.
As part of Wageningen's research, Dr Jeroen Knol, has been investigating ways to incorporate these sweet varieties into food products such as baby food.
Started a year ago, the project sees Dutch varieties grown in low-land Chile as part of a programme funded by the Chilean government and in conjunction with Nestlé Chile.
Knol told NutraIngredients other food products were being worked on, but declined to give further details.