Formerly an unpronounceable sand-looking grain relegated to the dusty bins of health food co-ops, quinoa (keen-WAH) has become a foodie Cinderella story, showing up in everything from cereal bars to Michelin-starred restaurant menus.

But what’s the story behind this ancient superfood? Is quinoa a fad, or has it changed the way we eat?

Quinoa is an ancient plant-based food (not a grain) that belongs to the same family as beets and spinach. First cultivated 7,000 years ago by people of the Andes, quinoa is hardy and can grow in a variety of climates and weather conditions, including areas with very little irrigation and poor soil. This ease of cultivation combined with the fact that quinoa is packed with protein makes it a valuable commodity in world markets.

In 2013, the United Nations named 2013 The International Year of Quinoa, citing quinoa’s hardiness as a crop and its contribution to global food security. Not surprisingly, the popularity of quinoa soared after this declaration, causing international debate regarding prices and costs to small farmers. Politics informs many aspects of modern life, and food is no different.

There are at least 120 varieties of quinoa, with the most common being white, red, and black. Quinoa can be ground into flour and pressed into flakes, which can then be cooked in less than two minutes.

Just ¾ of a cup of cooked quinoa has the following nutritional benefits:

  • Eight grams of protein
  • Five grams of fiber
  • 15% of daily recommended iron
  • 3% of daily recommended calcium
  • Contains all nine essential amino acids, making it a “complete” protein

There is zero saturated fat in quinoa prepared with water, zero sugar, and just 13 milligrams of sodium. In 1993, NASA published a paper touting quinoa as the “perfect food,” and sent their astronauts into space with it, igniting the fire for quinoa. The UN declaration ten years later just better cemented quinoa’s popularity.

In addition to the protein-packed nutritional benefits, quinoa has been one of the most recommended dietary additions for people who have Celiac disease.

Celiac disease is an intestinal disorder diagnosed in just 1% of the population in the U.S. Patients with celiac disease are unable to tolerate even small amounts of gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and in small amounts in legumes like soybeans. Consuming these foods triggers an immune response in the body.

This response can produce the following symptoms, often severe enough to warrant medical attention:

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Abdominal pain and bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Irritability

Adults may have the above symptoms but also experience symptoms as a result of the chronicity of this disease:

  • Iron deficiency
  • Fatigue
  • Pain in bones and joints
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Tingling in the extremities
  • Arthritis
  • Seizures

Because celiac disease does not allow the intestines to properly absorb nutrients, children with this disease can suffer from malnutrition, growth delays, failure to thrive, and defects in the enamel of permanent teeth.

There has been recent controversy over the term “gluten sensitivity.” The chief complaint has been that many people are choosing to eat gluten-free based on a flawed study that has not been duplicated.

Beyond the controversy regarding the diagnosis of gluten sensitivity, does quinoa help patients with celiac disease?

A new study published in January 2014 in The American Journal of Gastroenterology by Dr. Victor F. Zevallos from the Department of Gastroenterology, King’s College London, United Kingdom believes that it does. Accordings to Zevallos:

“The clinical data suggests that daily consumption of quinoa (50 grams) can be safely tolerated by celiac patients…We also found a positive trend towards improved small intestine morphology, particular a mild hypocholesterolemic (very low cholesterol) effect. It’s important to note that further studies are needed to determine the long-term effects of quinoa consumptions in people with celiac disease.”

In this study of 19 celiac patients, not only was quinoa well-tolerated, but it also seemed to repair the small intestine and lower cholesterol. Quinoa’s iron and calcium address the nutrient deficiencies often present in celiac patients and also improve bone health. It is important to note, however, that this study was short-term (just six weeks) and small scale, so more studies are needed to really solidify positive research on the health benefits of quinoa.

So how can a celiac patient incorporate quinoa into their diet?

First, choose quinoa that is clearly labeled “gluten free.” Anything not labeled is subject to cross-contamination and can cause a reaction. Cooking quinoa is very simple. Place one cup of quinoa in a strainer and rinse thoroughly with cold water. This removes the saponins that coat each grain, a substance that can cause the cooked quinoa to have a bitter taste. Place the rinsed quinoa in a pot and add two cups of water. Bring water to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook until all of the water is absorbed. Some cooks cover the pot; others leave the lid off. You can also cook quinoa in chicken or vegetable stock to add flavor.

From there, quinoa can be used in