Washington State University received a grant allowing researchers to study the nutritional value of quinoa at every level, from the soil through nutrient benefits to people.

Scientists from WSU’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, School of Food Science, and the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine will work on the project, called Enhancing Human Health and Nutrition from Soil to Society, thanks to a $1 million Seeding Solutions grant provided by the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR). Lundberg Family Farms and WSU provided matching funds and Ardent Mills, Brabender CWB and Seattle Food Tech/Rebellyous Foods provided additional support for a total $2,044,872 research investment.

Quinoa is a crop known for its protein quality and nutritional content, but it remains underutilized in U.S. agriculture. This grant will work to identify and improve quinoa varieties that can be adopted by American farmers to provide attractive and nutritious products to consumers.

Soil’s nutritional impact on quinoa, or any crop, isn’t something that’s been studied closely, said project lead Kevin Murphy.

“We’ve been building the groundwork for this grant for several years now,” said Murphy, WSU’s specialty crop breeder and an associate professor in Crop and Soil Sciences. “This is the first big grant we’ve gotten for this project and we’re excited to start working on it.”

“Quinoa’s nutritional quality and ease of cultivation make it a phenomenal crop,” said FFAR Executive Director Dr. Sally Rockey. “This research will produce new varieties that can be developed into more nutritious, flavorful and affordable crops in diverse environments.”

Variety of specializations

Each researcher and research team participating in the grant brings a different expertise to the table. Deirdre Griffin LaHue is an assistant professor specializing in soil health based at WSU’s Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center. She and her team will study the impacts of soil health management strategies on quinoa plant health and nutritional value.

Closeup of Kevin Murphy
Kevin Murphy

Murphy will grow new quinoa varieties and analyze them for amino acid and micronutrient concentrations. Girish Ganjyal, Interim Director of the School of Food Science and a Food Processing Specialist, will lead product development work by making food using the quinoa grown by Murphy’s team.

Franck Carbonero, assistant professor in the Floyd college’s Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology, and his team will focus on the impact of quinoa consumption on human digestive health.

Both Murphy and Ganjyal will send Carbonero products to test: Murphy contributing raw quinoa and Ganjyal quinoa-based food products.

Carbonero and his lab will run the samples through a gut microbiome simulator that he is almost finished developing. He will also conduct a human clinical trial to find out how quinoa’s nutrients are digested and impact health markers.

Separate scientific languages

One challenge to overcome has been communication, as different scientific fields have very specialized vernaculars.

“At this point, we’ve had hundreds of meetings just learning to talk to each other,” Murphy said. “We share a common goal of developing more heart-healthy, nutritious food. We’re all really good at one thing, and the team covers the whole spectrum.”

One way to help that will be the three Ph.D. students the FFAR grant funds, one each in Crop and Soils, Food Science, and Medicine.

“Graduate students are so helpful when it comes to spanning those intellectual divides,” Murphy said. “They’ll work closely together and get a broader educational experience by working on the project. And hopefully they’ll be able to teach us some new stuff as they learn.”

Pilot funding for the overall Enhancing Human Health project came from WSU’s Strategic Reallocation Research Projects, part of the university’s Grand Challenges initiative.

“We’ve gotten great feedback on a preliminary project where we looked at the impact of barley and how that’s absorbed in digestion,” Murphy said. “This is a continuation of that to figure out the impact other crops have on human health.”

Media contact:

  • Kevin Murphy, WSU Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, 509-335-9692, kmurphy2@wsu.edu