Small-scale EU production began in 2007 as part of a collaboration involving Dutch university and research organization Wageningen UR, French supplier AbbottAgra and French farmers co-op CAPL, with the first crop marketed in 2008.
Robert Van Loo, lead researcher at Wageningen UR, said production was now playing catch-up with sharp increases in demand.
This year, 2,000 tonnes of quinoa were harvested in France alone, and an additional 100 tons from growers in the UK, Netherlands, Belgium and Germany, he told Milling & Grains, all of which would be brought to market in 2015.
“About 1,200 hectares were harvested in France this year and some 200 hectares in the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. We have been able to scale-up the commercialization with the help of the head licencee AbbottAgra and its sub-licencees and are now collaborating to breed new varieties,” he said.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there were 20,000 hectares cultivated in Europe five years from now. The market price, which is now very high, will go down as a result.”
Wageninen researchers have developed three EU-specific quinoa cultivars – Atlas, Pasto and Riobamba – adapted to suit local climate and soil conditions; to satisfy Western consumers’ taste preferences; and make production more economically viable.
The key difference between South American and European quinoa is the absence of saponin, present on the outer layer of the grain, which has a bitter taste and ultimately reduces its marketability in the EU.
“The small residual saponin amounts that can occur in South American (bitter) quinoa can give that grain a slightly stringent taste while the EU quinoa is a fully neutral taste. In taste trials, the EU non-saponin quinoa is favoured above the South American variety,” said Van Loo.
He said that removing the saponin from quinoa grains also reduces production costs and increases the cultivar’s wholegrain qualities.
“The EU quinoa does not need the polishing process that the saponin containing quinoa from South America needs. This yields a wholegrain product that still has the outer layer that contains minerals and dietary fiber thereby increasing the nutritional value.”
Everyone a winner
Quinoa production offers a win-win situation for growers and consumers alike in the EU with higher guaranteed returns for producers and a more regular, stable supply for consumers, according to Van Loo.
“EU growers benefit by higher earnings per hectare than with, for example, wheat and they get a fixed price offer at the start of the season, so they do not have to organise the sale of the grain themselves.
“Consumers benefit from a new source of quinoa in addition to the current limited supply from South America. This offers a more stable supply and probably also lower prices in the longer term,” he said.
Quinoa contains high amounts of dietary fiber, minerals (including iron, calcium, magnesium, zinc) and protein (relative to other starch products) as well as being low in starch. It is also gluten-free making it ideal for consumers suffering from a gluten allergy or celiac disease, said Van Loo.
“New foods are always interesting to consumers especially when they are tasty and offer nutritional benefits.”
Van Loo believes the main application for quinoa will be in wholegrain foods, principally as a replacement for starch components in meals, for example potato, rice and pasta.
He added: “Other uses are being developed based on fractionation of protein, oil and starch. Quinoa protein has a very balanced composition of amino acids resembling that of mother milk, as it is high in lysine, cystine and methionine.”