Whether you're a die-hard fan or you could live without it, chances are you've at least heard of quinoa. The grain-like gluten-free seed, pronounced KEEN-wah, is touted for being a "protein-packed texture goddess."
Now, in addition to its health perks, the South American super-seed has a new claim to fame: it could play an instrumental part in combating the world's impending food shortage.
Why Quinoa Is Actually a Superfood
So, what makes quinoa a viable solution for the global food shortage? First, as we all know, quinoa is a rich source of nutrients.
"It is highly nutritious, with a high protein content that, importantly, has a very good balance of amino acids, which is unusual for our major grains, "explains Mark Tester, a professor of plant science at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia. "It is gluten-free and high in vitamins and minerals, too."
Tester, who led the team of international researchers that recently unveiled their genome-mapping study, also notes that the seed is incredibly resilient. It can grow under harsh conditions, including poor and salty soils, cold temperatures, and high altitudes. But, he adds, "Quinoa has never been fully domesticated or bred to its full potential."
Quinoa consumption dates back to pre-Columbian civilizations and was the sacred "mother grain" to the ancient Incas, but cultivation of the crop was suppressed when the Spaniards arrived. (They disapproved of its use in indigenous religious ceremonies.)
Now the crop is largely grown in Peru and Bolivia. With over 120 varieties of quinoa that grow up to three to nine feet tall, there's plenty of room for growth.
One obstacle for quinoa has been its flavor profile: The plant produces bitter-tasting seeds due to the presence of a toxic chemical compound known as saponin. But Tester has a solution: He and his team have identified the gene responsible for saponin production in quinoa, which means breeders can create plants without the compound.
We think that's pretty sweet.