Exploring the enduring appeal of quinoa

7 Oct 2019

Quinoa has become increasingly popular for several years, as consumers have turned to ancient grains and pseudo-cereals for their strong nutritional credentials. What does the future hold for quinoa?

In fact, quinoa is not a grain, but a seed, native to South America. High in potassium, magnesium, B vitamins, fibre and protein, its popularity began to increase the early 2000s with rising interest in nutritionally dense “superfoods”. Now, it is a mainstay on western supermarket shelves, often sandwiched between more traditional grains like couscous and rice – but its reputation as a nutritional powerhouse has catapulted quinoa into nearly every grocery category, from baked goods to yoghurts and even beverages.

Exploring the enduring appeal of quinoa
Quinoa's appeal continues to grow across product categories

According to Innova Market Insights, ready meals and side dishes with quinoa have seen the strongest growth, with brands positioning such products as containing ‘supergrains’, ‘whole grains’ or ‘ancient grains’, followed by the snacks category, which is more likely to use words like ‘multigrain’ or ‘ancient grain’. Since 2014, interest in vegetarian and vegan foods has led to increased use of quinoa in meat alternatives like veggie burgers, too, as well as in sports nutrition products. The sports sector promotes the nutritional benefits of quinoa – particularly its protein content – but also backs the ingredient as a plant-based, allergen-free alternative to more commonly used protein ingredients like whey or soy.

Quinoa also has benefited more widely from rising demand for allergen-free and gluten-free foods, especially with growing awareness of the nutritional value of specific gluten-free grains. Until a few years ago, gluten-free products often fell nutritionally short of their gluten-containing counterparts, but a general move toward more natural, whole food ingredients has led manufacturers to explore how to use a range of grains, including quinoa, to improve the texture, taste and nutrition of gluten-free foods. And quinoa is one of the most sought after among ancient grains. According to Mintel, it appeared in more than 2,200 new products launched globally in 2017.

Heightened demand has led to a proliferation of ingredient suppliers offering quinoa for various uses and in various forms, including raw or processed. Among other ingredients, CerealVeneta, for example, supplies heat-treated quinoa seeds, which it says improves their shelf life and organoleptic qualities. Meanwhile, MartinoRossi specialises in quinoa flour, which is either raw or heat-treated, for use in gluten-free and allergen-free applications, and Biercors produces flours and flakes from organic sprouted quinoa – among other grains – to boost the ingredient’s nutritional value still further.

While many so-called ‘superfood’ trends may prompt scepticism about their long-term potential, quinoa appears to have staying power, not least because it taps into so many broader industry trends, including for plant-based, clean eating, and for high protein, nutritionally dense foods.