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Mapping ancient grains.
Reuters/David Mercado
Mapping ancient grains.
SUPERFOODS

Scientists have mapped the genome for quinoa, potentially making the superfood super cheap

By Chase Purdy

It’s already a protein-packed ancient grain beloved by foodies. Now scientists say they’ve mapped the genome of quinoa, potentially unlocking a way to mass produce at prices that could help feed the world’s hungry.

By tinkering with the genetic makeup of the plant, a team of researchers based out of King Abdullah University in Saudi Arabia say it’s possible to grow a strain of quinoa that’s easier to process. In doing so, scientists hope the cost of the grain could one day be comparable to wheat.

Most quinoa on the market is grown in South America—typically Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. For decades it was a quiet crop, the food of peasants around the Andean mountains. But that changed sometime around 2006, when its categorization as a superfood by some in the nutrition sphere sparked a craze in Europe and the US. In 2007, the US imported about 7 million pounds (3.2 million kg) of the grain—which had skyrocketed to 70 million pounds by 2013, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center.

In that same period, the price of quinoa tripled. The prices fell slightly (paywall) in 2015, the result of a better supply-demand balance, but it still remains a nutritious food mostly cordoned of to the middle classes.

Eventually, researchers hope to discover ways to grow the grain with a stockier plant that won’t fall over as easily as it does currently and find ways to grow it in different climates. The grain naturally contains a toxic compound called saponins, a bitter component of quinoa seeds that’s used by the plant to ward off predators.

But by finding a way to grow the plant without its saponins, scientists say the seeds will taste sweeter and companies can spend less money and time removing the compound.