The changing face of quinoa production

24 Feb 2020

Quinoa has gone from a relatively unknown pseudo-cereal to a commonly used “superfood” in western markets over the space of just a decade – and global suppliers are taking further steps to secure its place among mainstream packaged food ingredients.

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) declared 2013 the year of quinoa, giving the crop a major boost as its broader commercialisation was touted as a way to increase diversity in the global food system. Its average price skyrocketed 600%, alleviating poverty in growing regions. But despite enduring interest in quinoa, the boom period appears to have ended, with prices back at pre-2011 levels, mainly due to increased global production.

The changing face of quinoa production
Quinoa has become a mainstay across categories

At the peak of international quinoa exports, from 2011 to 2014, some commentators raised concerns about the impact on local Bolivian and Peruvian diets, as producers sold a large proportion of this highly nutritious crop, and substituted it in their diets with less nutritious processed foods. But while Peru and Bolivia still account for the bulk of global quinoa production, competition with international producers has intensified.

According to the FAO, about 70 countries now produce quinoa on a commercial scale, and distributors in the United States and Europe in particular are encouraging domestic production. The non-profit organisation NACLA (the North American Congress on Latin America) has warned that systems need to be put in place to protect local farmers before promoting underutilised crops on an international basis. Otherwise, they may benefit from an initial boom but get left behind when more powerful players invest in their broader consumption.

Quinoa looks set to remain on the international stage, and global suppliers are keen to expand its presence still further. On western supermarket shelves, it has become a mainstay, not just among grains, but in nearly every category, from cereals and snacks to yoghurts and beverages. The primary reason is growing consumer interest in healthy eating and “superfoods”, but it has also benefitted from rising demand for natural, nutrient-dense, gluten-free foods. Quinoa is one of the most sought after ancient grains, according to Mintel, appearing in more than 2,200 new products launched globally in 2017.

Manufacturers often position quinoa-based products as containing “supergrains”, “whole grains” or “ancient grains”, according to Innova Market Insights, with ready meals and side dishes with quinoa experiencing the strongest growth. However, quinoa’s protein content and textural qualities mean it also is popular in meat alternatives, and in sports nutrition products where it is promoted as a plant-based, allergen-free alternative to other common protein ingredients like whey or soy.

Beyond production itself, heightened demand has opened opportunities for specially treated quinoa, as western companies aim to optimise it for use in processed food. CerealVeneta, for instance, supplies heat-treated quinoa seeds, which it says improves their shelf life and organoleptic qualities. 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 to boost its nutritional value still further.

The rise of quinoa in processed foods almost certainly provides health benefits to western consumers, but the rise and subsequent fall in prices suggests the FAO’s strategy of promoting underutilised crops needs work if it is to maximise potential benefits in poorer regions too. In Bolivia and Peru, cooperatives have helped small-scale farmers reap greater rewards – and there is a push to certify traditional production, as Geographical Indications have helped boost recognition of specialist agricultural products in Europe.

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