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New technology to advance Australian quinoa industry

Released on

Released on:
Thursday, 21. January 2021 - 9:30

The Australian quinoa industry has taken a step forward with the development of a more accurate and efficient processing and breeding tool to ensure the ancient superfood maximises palatability.

Quinoa seed has an outer coating that contains a compound, called saponin – derived from the Latin word for soap – which produces a foam when washed.

While the saponin acts as a natural deterrent to birds, pests and diseases, it has a bitter taste and can be harmful to humans if consumed in high quantities.

A simple foam test is commonly used to determine the approximate level of saponin on processed quinoa seed.

The Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) has developed a specialised measurement technique to quantify the precise level of saponin on quinoa seed.

Research scientist Adel Yousif recognised an opportunity to modify a water droplet surface tension (WDST) technique used in the resources sector, to accurately quantify the saponin concentration and satisfy international quinoa specifications.

The DPIRD research was backed by co-investment from AgriFutures Australia, as part of its ‘Quinoa as a new crop in Australia’ project.

The project focused on investigating where and how quinoa can be grown across Australia and resulted in the development of the new variety Kruso White by DPIRD.

Project lead, research scientist Harmohinder Dhammu, said the WDST provided an innovative, accurate and low cost method to estimate the saponin content, which could generate wide-ranging benefits to the quinoa industry around the globe.

“The WDST measurement tool will ensure that post-processed seed is sufficiently low in saponin in order to create a more palatable product and reduce any potentially detrimental health effects,” Dr Dhammu said.

“Secondly, this tool will assist plant breeders to screen and select lines for low seed saponin content.”

The WDST method modified chemical engineering technology used to measure surfactants, a detergent-like substance like saponin, that when added to a liquid reduces its surface tension – increasing its spreading and wetting properties.

Three sources of commercial quinoa seed were tested during the research, including two Australian products and one from Bolivia.

The research is being shared with the global quinoa industry and was recently published in Food Chemistry, a prestigious Elsevier scientific journal.

Dr Dhammu said it was now up to commercial processors and plant breeders to determine how the WDST technology could be integrated into their operations.

“Should quinoa seed processors be willing to invest in the application of the WDST method, they are likely to have greater confidence in their measurements of saponin content,” he said.

“Plant breeders will also be able to use the WDST method to more accurately and efficiently identify suitable lines within the saponin sensitivity range from which to develop superior lines of quinoa.”

Four men holding quinoa and a tablet in a laboratory.
The DPIRD scientists involved in developing the new quinoa saponin quantification technology: Dr Darshan Sharma (left), Dr Harmohinder Dhammu and former employees Richard Snowball and Mario D’Antuono.
Two men taking a photograph of a box with a hole in it.
DPIRD research scientists Dr Harmohinder Dhammu (left) and Dr Adel Yousif take photographs of saponin solution droplets as part of a quinoa processing experiment.

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