In February, top officials from the United Nations (UN) and the Andean community launched the "International Year of Quinoa" to raise awareness of the nutritional value and health benefits of a food that has been cultivated for thousands of years. Originally proposed by the government of Bolivia, this UN initiative quickly gained support from other countries within South America as well as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

The intention, the UN noted, is to recognize the indigenous peoples of the Andes, those who have maintained and preserved quinoa as food "for present and future generations." Today, quinoa is recognized and accepted around the world as a natural resource and a viable food option for areas with arid farming conditions and high malnutrition rates. As a crop, quinoa is known to be adaptabie as it is a water efficient plant, is tolerant of a lack of soil moisture, and yields even during times of low rainfall. There are more than three thousand varieties of quinoa. Although the main producers are Bolivia, Peru, quinoa production has expanded to the U.S. and has now begun to reach other continents, including Europe, Asia, and Africa.

According to the UN, quinoa has great potential to help combat malnutrition worldwide. But it is also a versatile enough ingredient to contribute to your very own home-cooked meals.

Health Benefits of Quinoa

Most often used as a grain, quinoa in a single cup serving has 5 grams of dietary fiber and 8 grams of protein. This tiny edible seed, which is related to spinach and beetroots, can be cooked, and added to meals where it serves as a main or secondary protein. Most people believe its light, fluffy texture is similar to couscous.

According to the UN, quinoa is the only plant food that contains all the essential amino acids, vitamins, and trace elements, while containing no gluten. Significantly, essential amino acids are found in the nucleus of the grain, unlike rice or wheat or other cereals, in which they are located in the exosperm or hull.

Quinoa also contains magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, lysine, manganese, and iron. This particular combination of nutrients and antioxidant materials translates into helping to prevent both cell damage and cardiovascular disease. Plus the low ratio of carbohydrates to protein helps it regulate blood sugar and for this reason is considered to be good for diabetics.

Cooking With Quinoa

To cook this grain, simply rinse and place within a pot of broth or water, two parts liquid to one part quinoa, and then bring the liquid to boil. It is recommended that you cover and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Many cooks use quinoa in place of pasta and rice. Other cooks, such as Charlotte Bradley, include the grain in recipes for salads. For her quinoa tomato salad recipe, go here.

In support of International Year of Quinoa, the UN updated and reissued its report "Quinoa, an ancient crop to contribute to world food security."