The super food’s tolerance for extreme conditions could make it a key crop, writes Fan Zhu
Quinoa is an ancient seed, originally grown only in the high altitudes of South America’s Andes, where it has been cultivated for thousands of years. Its popularity and price have surged over the past three decades because of health-conscious consumers attracted by its reputation as a “super food”.
After 10 years of research into quinoa and recently publishing the book about it, Quinoa, Chemistry and Technology, I believe quinoa is likely to play a major role in improving food security for a large proportion of the global population, and its tolerance for extreme conditions could make it a key crop for helping humans survive climate change.
Climate change has already contributed to crop failures around the world, especially in parts of Africa, such as Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan, as well as in parts of Asia, including India and Pakistan.
Warmer temperatures, changes in precipitation patterns, droughts, extreme weather events, and pests are issues all around the world that will threaten food production. Risks of hunger and malnutrition will increase as a result, most severely affecting people in the poorest regions of the world and disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable populations, including women and children, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
What’s so great about quinoa? To give one example of the seed’s hardiness, quinoa has survived and germinated in experiments simulating the harsh conditions of outer space. These experiments suggested potential for quinoa to be grown in space to feed astronauts on long trips.
It can be cultivated in conditions from the very dry to humid, from sea level to an elevation of 4000 metres, and on acidic, nutrient-poor soils with different levels of acidity and alkalinity. The genetic makeup of some quinoa varieties means that they can even be grown in seawater.
Sometimes called a ‘pseudo cereal’ – a seed eaten in a way similar to cereal grains such as rice – quinoa is, indeed, highly nutritious, as its “super food” publicity would suggest.
It is a complete protein, containing all nine essential amino acids. In comparison, most of the staples such as rice and wheat have either lower protein content and/or are incomplete in the make-up of essential amino acids. Quinoa is also gluten-free, which is particularly useful as the number of people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity is ever increasing.
Because of the lack of gluten-type protein in quinoa, its bread/pasta-making quality is not as good as wheat, though many technological solutions have already been made and quinoa based food/beverage products are readily available from the marketplace. Xanthan and tara gums have been formulated with quinoa for bread-making and pasta-making, food gums that function as binders replacing the function of gluten-type proteins.
Quinoa-based biscuits have been made using fresh eggs and sugars. Lactic acid based fermentation could improve the quality of quinoa based vegan cheese and cream analogs. It is expected that many more quinoa based gluten free products will be developed.
Quinoa is high in fibre, magnesium, B vitamins, iron, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, vitamin E and various beneficial antioxidants. (I would add, though, that some claimed health benefits such as its anti-diabetic and anti-cancer capacities are yet to be proved because the scientific studies that do demonstrate this have been on animals or in laboratory experiments, not on humans).
Like major crops such as wheat, rice and potato, quinoa is a great source of glycemic carbohydrate in the form of starch. The glycemic load of quinoa tends to be lower than that of major staples including rice, maize and wheat, because quinoa tends to contain more non-starch nutrients such as unsaturated lipids which are mostly bioactive and health-promoting. This nutritional aspect of quinoa has already made it appealing to the health market but it also has potential to reduce risk of diabetes and some cancers.
It might not yet have the sensory appeal of rice or wheat, and cooked quinoa can taste bitter, as a result of the saponins in its seed coat, although saponins could be good for us as they exhibit a wide range of biological and pharmacological properties and serve as major active principles in folk medicines, especially in traditional Chinese medicines. Anyway, a quick wash before cooking quinoa will get rid of the bitterness. Sweet quinoa varieties with little saponins have already been created and are being cultivated in New Zealand.
Production of quinoa has surged in the last few decades. Bolivia and Peru still dominate the market, but it’s now grown in more than 70 countries including the US, China and New Zealand. World production is something over 200,000 tonnes per year, which is modest compared to rice and wheat (both rice and wheat production are well over 760 million tonnes each) but set to grow dramatically, with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations promoting its development as a sustainable food crop. The United Nations General Assembly declared 2013 as the ‘International Year of Quinoa’.
But its potential to stand up to climate change is what makes quinoa particularly important. In Asia’s large river deltas, such as Ganges–Brahmaputra in Bangladesh, increased salinity is expected to lead to a decrease of up to 30 percent of land suitable for growing rice within three decades. In semi-arid Burkina Faso, one of the West African nations with regular food crises, quinoa is being successfully cultivated, and production is growing in the high plateau of Qinghai–Tibet, an area warming quickly. Quinoa from these high regions is being shipped all over China.
It takes 500 litres of water to make one kilogram of quinoa. In comparison, to produce a kilogram of rice, wheat or maize, requires about 2500, 1500 or 1200 litres of water. That makes quinoa more suitable in areas with limited rainfall such as the semi-arid Sahel region in North Africa.
As temperatures rise and extreme climate patterns occur more frequently across Pakistan, the west of China, and northern parts of both India and Africa, rice crops are likely to fail in vast swathes of land, but places where it will be possible to grow quinoa. We need to invest in and harness the potential of quinoa. Faced with the dramatic consequences of climate change, quinoa can help us out.
* Quinoa: Chemistry and Technology is published by Elsevier’s Academic Press