2013: The International Year of Quinoa

August 2, 2013

by Deborah Gerszberg, RD, CNSC, CDN Clinical Nutritionist, The Pancreas Center


What makes this grain-like substance so incredible that the United Nations General Assembly has officially declared 2013 the International Year of Quinoa? Well, a lot. From its rich nutritional content to its biodiversity, quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) has a lot to offer anyone who is concerned about good nutrition, including those with diabetes or other health problems.

Nutritional Content

For all intents and purposes, I consider quinoa a grain since it is most compared to other grains and is cooked and prepared like a grain. This grain-like fruit is chock full of protein, vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats. Those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance can enjoy quinoa, as it is gluten free.  It alsot has a low glycemic index, so your blood sugar won’t peak as high as it would with grains such as pasta or rice.

Protein.  Quinoa has the highest protein content among all grains (13-17 percent of the calories), and 37 percent of the proteins are high quality essential amino acids (EAA), meaning that our bodies are unable to produce them, so they must be ingested from food. Without EAAs, we cannot grow and over time become malnourished. Here are some of the EAAs in quinoa and their functions:

Lysine—(most abundant EAA in quinoa) enhances immune function and gastric function, helps with calcium absorption, assists in cell repair, and is involved in fat metabolism.

Glutamic Acid—helps with learning and memorization; provides energy for the brain.

Aspartic Acid—enhances liver function; helps maintain the cardiovascular system.

Tyrosine—has anti-stress properties; helps to relieve depression and anxiety.

Isoleucine, Leucine, and Valine—together prevent liver damage and help balance blood sugar levels.

Vitamins and minerals.  Compared with wheat, quinoa is rich in thiamin (vitamin B1), riboflavin (vitamin B2), niacin (vitamin B3), vitamin E, vitamin C, and vitamin A. Quinoa also has twice the amount of iron and zinc and about 1.5 times more calcium than wheat. In addition, the iron and calcium are highly bioavailable. Quinoa also contains copper, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, and manganese.

Fats. Quinoa is a good source of healthy fats, with about 15% of the calories coming from fat, most of which are unsaturated fatty acids. Contrary to what we were told in the 90s, a low-fat and a heart-healthy diet are not synonymous. We need fats to digest fat-soluble vitamins, to stimulate our digestive systems to release digestive enzymes, and to maintain healthy cellular functioning. Fats also take longer to empty the stomach, which leaves you feeling full for longer. We now know to consume more healthy fats from nuts, seeds, legumes, wild fatty fish, and olive oil, while consuming fewer fats from animal products (saturated fats found in dairy and meat) and hydrogenated oils (trans fats).


Quinoa can be grown in a variety of climates (with a wide range of temperature, humidity, and altitudes), unlike other grains that are limited to specific climates. This highly sustainable crop has the potential not only to provide nutritious and balanced food to many malnourished people around the world, but it may also provide a source of export income for struggling communities.


Quinoa is both nutritious and delicious! There are many ways to prepare it: Serve it hot or cold, in soup, as a side dish or main dish. Use a crock pot to have a meal ready and waiting for you when you get home. No matter how you prepare it, always rinse the quinoa before cooking, unless you purchase it pre-rinsed.  Use either a strainer or a pot with a tight-fitting lid and fill with water; then put on the lid and turn upside down to drain off the water. This gets rid of most of the saponins, which cause a slightly bitter flavor. Saponins aren’t all bad, though. They help increase membrane permeability, making foods and/or drugs more easily absorbed. Saponins also have some anti-fungal and antibacterial properties, which are being studied.

How to Cook Quinoa

Here is my favorite quinoa recipe, which I make on an almost weekly basis (I made this one up). To bring out the nuttier flavor of the quinoa, first toast it over low heat in the stock pot and then cook.


3 cups of carrot juice (or >1.5 cups carrot juice; the rest could be water)

1 large or 2 small onions, chopped

olive oil (2 tsp)

curry (1 tbsp)

cumin (1 tsp)

turmeric (1 tsp)

ground black pepper (1/4-1/2 tsp)

salt (1/2 tsp or to taste—I tend to cook with less salt)

1/4 cup chopped raisins

1/4 cup chopped parsley


2) While quinoa is cooking, sauté the onion in the olive oil over medium to medium-high heat until translucent and slightly browned. Add spices to onion sauté and remove from heat.

3) When quinoa is done cooking, mix in raisins and onion sauté. Once slightly cooled, mix in parsley.

Here is a link to another favorite quinoa recipe, Pineapple-Cashew-Quinoa Stir-Fry, from the cookbook Veganomicon. I have made this for a few pot-luck meals, and I’m always asked to share the recipe and cook it again! I use about half the amount of peanut oil the recipe calls for. Sometimes I omit the vegetable stock if I don’t have any on hand. Instead of mirin, you could use sherry cooking wine.


I challenge you to cook with quinoa once a week, in place of rice, potatoes, or pasta.

This article originally appeared on The Columbia University Department of Surgery's blog.