By India Annamanthadoo, Students Promoting Awareness of Research Knowledge (SPARK)

Prof. Massimo Marconi
Prof. Massimo Marcone

Quinoa, a crop that was once limited to parts of South America, is about to get a lot closer to home.

Food science professor Massimo Marcone and Jamie Draves, owner of Katan Kitchens in Campbellville, Ont., have teamed up to study the viability of Ontario-grown quinoa.

Their team is studying the agronomic practices of growing several species of both experimental and commercial quinoa across Ontario. When the quinoa is harvested, Marcone’s lab analyzes the nutritional content of the crop, such as total dietary fibre, carbohydrates, minerals and protein. Marcone calls their research unique, because they analyze the entire plant, including the seeds, the stem and the leaves.

“We want to know if there are variances in the nutritional properties of quinoa related to where it’s grown, and our research so far has confirmed that there are,” he says.

Once an unfamiliar crop, quinoa has now become an international sensation. The United Nations declared 2013 the International Year of Quinoa, and NASA is considering quinoa as a staple in their astronauts’ diets. Quinoa’s success as a crop is mainly attributed to its high nutritional content and its versatility as an ingredient.

Marcone has found that some quinoa species have varying levels of protein, depending on where they were grown in Ontario. These species are known as “phenotypically plastic,” which means that their nutritional properties vary according to the region in which they are grown.

Conversely, “stable” quinoa species have properties that generally remain constant regardless of where they grow. Researchers must decide whether it’s more efficient to grow a limited amount of protein-rich phenotypically plastic species or a greater amount of lower-quality stable species.

Despite these challenges, the project has been successful. According to Marcone, the quality of the quinoa grown in Ontario is far superior to the often variable quality of quinoa traditionally grown in South America. Draves predicts that Ontario-grown quinoa will be on the market as soon as next year, under the brand name QUINTA, which is an acronym for QUInoa in NorTh America

To make the crop as sustainable as possible, Marcone’s team is developing methods of transforming the cellulose from the stem of the quinoa plant into biodegradable wrappers.

The implications of Ontario-grown quinoa are significant. For farmers, quinoa crops could become a viable alternative to more traditional crops. For consumers, Ontario-grown quinoa would be more affordable, due to lower transportation costs and stable production.

These crops will also provide guidelines for the study of growing other super foods in Ontario, such as amaranth.

“Guelph has always been a leader in conducting pioneering research,” says Marcone, “and our work with quinoa is another example of this. We are rediscovering a crop from the bottom up.”

The research was funded by an NSERC Engage Grant and an Ontario Centres of Excellence Grant.