Amaranth - May Grain of the Month
Each month we feature a different whole grain on the Whole Grains Council website, including information on its health benefits, cooking tips and recipes, historical/cultural facts, and more. Click to see the full calendar.
May’s Grain of the Month is Amaranth. In Mexico and other Central American countries, the lingering chill of April begins to give way to May’s longer days and more temperate nights. Gentle rains and warm sun create the ideal environment for tiny grains of amaranth to sprout and begin their high climb towards the sky. In May, we also celebrate Celiac Awareness Month, making it the perfect time to recognize the important role that naturally gluten-free amaranth plays in gluten-free diets.
So What Is Amaranth?
Amaranth is the common name for more than 60 different species of amaranthus, which are usually very tall plants with broad green leaves and impressively bright purple, red, or gold flowers. The name for amaranth comes from the Greek amarantos, “one that does not wither," or “the never-fading.” True to form, amaranth’s bushy flowers retain their vibrancy even after harvesting and drying, and some varieties of ornamental amaranth forego the production of fancy flowers in favor of flashy foliage, sprouting leaves that can range from deep blood-red to light green shot with purple veining. Although several species can be viewed as little more than annoying weeds, people around the world value amaranth as leaf vegetables, cereals, and ornamental plants.
In all fairness to whole grains everywhere, we need to “out” amaranth as a bit of an imposter. It isn’t a true cereal grain in the sense that oats, wheat, sorghum, and most other grains are. “True cereals” all stem from the Poaceae family of plants, while amaranth (among others) is often referred to as a pseudo-cereal, meaning it belongs to a different plant species. So why are these interlopers almost always included in the whole grain roundup? Because their overall nutrient profile is similar to that of cereals, and more importantly, pseudocereals like amaranth have been utilized in traditional diets spanning thousands of years in much the same way as the “true cereals” have been. Click here to "meet" amaranth in its various forms.
Amaranth grain has a long and colorful history in Mexico and is considered a native crop in Peru. It was a major food crop of the Aztecs, and some have estimated amaranth was domesticated between 6,000 and 8,000 years ago. Annual grain tributes of amaranth to the Aztec emperor were roughly equal to corn tributes. The Aztecs didn’t just grow and eat amaranth, they also used the grains as part of their religious practices. Many ceremonies would include the creation of a deity’s image that had been made from a combination of amaranth grains and honey. Once formed, the images were worshipped before being broken into pieces and distributed for people to eat. When Cortez and his Spaniards landed in the New World in the sixteenth century, they immediately began fervent and often forceful attempts to convert the Aztecs to Christianity. One of their first moves? Outlaw foods involved in “heathen” festivals and religious ceremonies, amaranth included. Although severe punishment was handed to anyone found growing or possessing amaranth, complete eradication of this culturally important, fast-growing, and very prevalent plant proved to be impossible.
In true “never-fading” fashion, seeds from the amaranth plant spread around the world and both leaves and grain became important food sources in areas of Africa, India, and Nepal. In the past two decades, amaranth has reached a much larger number of farmers and can now be found in many non-native regions such as China, Russia, Thailand, and Nigeria, as well as Mexico and parts of South America. It prefers high elevation to low but is impressively adaptive and can grow well in moist, loose soil with good drainage at almost any elevation and in just about any temperate climate. Once established, amaranth can continue to thrive in low-water conditions, making it especially valuable in sub-Sahara Africa where water sources are few, especially in the dry season. Looking a little closer to home, amaranth received renewed interested as a food source here in the United States back in the 1970s. Today, you can find it growing in small amounts in some pretty surprising locations, including Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, North Dakota, and even Long Island, NY! Click here for some interesting grower’s links and resources.
Thanks to Karen Hursh Graber, Senior Food Editor for Mexconnect.com, for this highly informative and truly fascinating article!
Amaranth’s Health Benefits
Amaranth contains more than three times the average amount of calcium and is also high in iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium. It’s also the only grain documented to contain Vitamin C. Very little research has been conducted on amaranth’s beneficial properties, but the studies that have focused on amaranth’s role in a healthy diet have revealed three very important reasons to add it to your diet.
It’s a protein powerhouse. At about 13-14%, it easily trumps the protein content of most other grains. You may hear the protein in amaranth referred to as “complete” because it contains lysine, an amino acid missing or negligible in many grains. One of the first studies to showcase amaranth’s protein power took place in Peru in the late 1980s. Children were fed toasted amaranth flour, popped amaranth grain, and amaranth flakes as the source of all dietary protein and fat, and as 50% of their daily energy requirements, then later fed a mix of amaranth and corn in various forms. Because researchers focused on “end results” so to speak, we’ll gloss over the details and sum up their findings with this key quote: “If amaranths were available at a reasonable cost, they could represent a major component of the diets of children in the developing world…”
Another study from the Institute of Nutrition of Central America and Panama at Guatemala in 1993 saw similar results when amaranth was submitted to extrusion and popping processes. Using cheese protein as a reference, researchers concluded that the protein in amaranth “is among the highest in nutritive quality of vegetable origin and close to those of animal origin products.” More recently, molecular biologists in Mexico set out to study the bioactive peptides in amaranth’s protein and, in 2008, were the first to report the presence of a lunasin-like peptide. Drawing a blank on lunasin? It’s a peptide that was previously identified in soybeans and is widely thought to have cancer-preventing benefits as well as possibly blocking inflammation that accompanies several chronic health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
It’s good for your heart. Amaranth has shown potential as a cholesterol-lowing whole grain in several studies conducted over the past 14 years.
First, in 1996, researchers from the U. S. Department of Agriculture in Madison, WI conducted studies that showed the healthy oil in amaranth could significantly reduce total cholesterol and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol in 6-week-old female chickens. This was great news for chickens, but what about us humans? Cut to 2003, when researchers at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada found that amaranth can be a rich dietary source of phytosterols, which have cholesterol-lowering properties. Just a few years later, in 2007, Russian researchers drew from the 1996 study to determine whether or not amaranth would also show benefits for patients with cardiovascular disease (CVD). Patients who presented with coronary heart disease and hypertension not only showed benefits from the inclusion of amaranth in their diets, researchers also saw a significant decrease in the amounts of total cholesterol, triglycerides, LDL cholesterol.
Last but not least, it’s naturally gluten-free. Gluten is the major protein in many grains and is responsible for the elasticity in dough, allows for leavening, and contributes chewiness to baked products. But more and more people are finding they cannot comfortably – or even safely – eat products containing gluten, often due to Celiac disease, an autoimmune digestive disease that damages the body’s ability to absorb nutrients from food. This makes amaranth an important grain to take note of during May, which is Celiac Awareness Month. In fact, more whole grains are gluten-free than gluten-containing! It’s just that the gluten-containing whole grains and products have been more prevalent in our food supply, but this is slowly changing. If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with Celiac disease, we hope you’ll take a moment to visit our Gluten-Free Whole Grains page – and maybe try some of the amaranth recipes we’re highlighting below!
After All, Amaranth Is Made For Eating!
In many South American countries, you can find it sold on the streets, most often having been popped like corn. In India, Mexico, Nepal, and Peru, it’s a traditional ingredient for breakfast porridge. In Mexico, a favorite treat is dulce de alegria (“alegria” is the Spanish word for joy), a sweet candy-like confection made from popped amaranth mixed with sugar or honey. If you’ve ever been a part of a true Mexican Día de Muertos or Day of the Dead celebration, perhaps you’ve seen – or even eaten – an amaranth seed skull like the photo at right. Creepy, but tasty! And of course, amaranth can be eaten straight up. Its flavor runs from light and nutty to lively and peppery, making it a popular ingredient in cereals, breads, muffins, crackers, and pancakes.
Cooking amaranth is very easy – measure grains and water, boil water, add grains, gently boil with the occasional stir for 15-20 minutes, then drain, rinse, and enjoy! Yes, it’s really that simple. Cooked amaranth behaves a little differently than other whole grains. It never loses its crunch completely, but rather softens on the inside while maintaining enough outer integrity so that the grains seem to pop between your teeth. In fact, the sensation of chewing a spoonful of cooked amaranth grains has been compared to eating a spoonful of caviar (without the salty fishiness, of course). None of our culinary experts reported any success when trying to prepare amaranth for a pilaf, but the cooked grains can be spread on a plate or other flat surface to dry a bit, then sprinkled on salads, added to cookie batters, or stirred into soups.
In fact, there’s only one real rule to follow when cooking up a batch of plain amaranth – don’t skimp on the water! We suggest at least 6 cups of water for every one cup of amaranth, not because the little grains will absorb that much liquid, but because of what happens to the water that’s left. To say “your cooking liquid will thicken slightly” is putting it delicately. Our experiments with the average amount of liquid (about 2 cups) left us with about two inches of excess water that was goopy and viscous, in part due to starch being released by amaranth as it cooks. The grains hadn’t gone bad or anything, and they were fine after a brief rinse in a fine-mesh strainer, but it was a bit of a surprise.
Hungry for a little amaranth on your plate? We hope you’ll take a moment to explore some of our favorite amaranth recipes from the Whole Grains Council website:
And if, after trying them all, you still find yourself craving more, be sure to check out the following WGC Member websites featuring additional amaranth products and recipes:
Fun, Interesting, Strange & Wacky
- Amaranth is the title of a song by Finnish symphonic power metal band Nightwish. Feel free to check out their artistic video on YouTube here. (We wonder if some meaning may have been lost when translating the lyrics from Finnish to English, but then again, maybe not!)
- When gathering research on amaranth and health, we were quite startled to see this abstract about immunological studies on Amaranth, Sunset Yellow, and Curcumin as food coloring agents. Amaranth can be used to color food? That’s odd. Turns out, there’s another kind of amaranth that used to be part of our food system, Amaranth E123. Not to be confused with “our” amaranth (small, highly nutritious, protein-rich, and naturally gluten-free), Amaranth E123 is a purple-red synthetic food coloring agent derived from coal tar, a by-product from processing coal – gross! No wonder the FDA banned it in 1976!
- Is it possible that amaranth can cure back pain? According to one Hindu man living in Queens, an interloping amaranth plant that took root in-between two concrete slabs in his back yard in 2008 did just that. As it grew, the impressive four-foot-tall flower on the amaranth stalk began to resemble an elephant's head and trunk. By mid-October, the flower’s resemblance to the Hindu god Ganesh – and the absence of the head and neck pain that had been plaguing him for months – was too significant for the man to dismiss.
- Even the leaves of the amaranth plant can offer potential health benefits. Australian researchers in 2002 published a study focusing on Greeks who relocated to Melbourne but maintained their traditional Mediterranean diet. During this study, the foods that were selected for nutrient evaluation – leafy green vegetables, figs in season, and various types of olive oil – were those commonly consumed by Greeks living in Melbourne, but not by native Australians. Of all the commercial and wild leafy greens studied, amaranth leaves were found to contain some of the highest levels of beta-carotene and lutein, even higher than the commercially available chicory and endive. Imagine how powerfully nutritious a salad with amaranth leaves and amaranth grains would be!
- Your average amaranth plant could be considered an over-achiever, often maxing out anywhere between five and eight feet tall. The tallest amaranth plant currently on record in the Guinness Book of World Records was a certifiable giant, measuring an astonishing 27 feet 10 inches!
- Amaranth’s popularity has been on a slow climb here in the U.S. for the last 30+ years, but in 1985 it really took off – literally! When the Space Shuttle Atlantis made its maiden voyage out of earth’s atmosphere on October 3, 1985, amaranth hitched a ride. Not only did crewmembers conduct experiments on germinating amaranth is space, NASA chefs also prepared amaranth cookies (with or without nuts) for the astronauts to enjoy during the mission.
- What do Swedish nobles from the 1600s and modern day Master Masons have in common? Why, the Order of the Amaranth of course! During her reign, Queen Christina of Sweden created the Order of the Amarantha for the knights and ladies of her court. The Order of the Amaranth that exists today is a Masonic-affiliated women's organization founded in 1873 and serves as a social, fraternal, and charitable organization whose membership is open to both men and women with a Masonic affiliation.