This grain has been cultivated as a grain for 8,000 years. The yield of grain amaranth is comparable to rice or maize. It was a staple food of the Aztecs, and was used as an integral part of Aztec religious ceremonies. The cultivation of amaranth was banned by the conquistadores upon their conquest of the Aztec nation. Because the plant has continued to grow as a weed since that time, its genetic base has been largely maintained. Research on grain amaranth began in the US in the 1970s. By the end of the 1970s, a few thousand acres were being cultivated. Much of the grain currently grown is sold in health food shops.
SO WHAT IS AMARANTH?
The name for amaranth comes from the Greek amarantos, “one that does not wither," or “the never-fading.” 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.
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. 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, and we resource our amaranth flours here in the US. Click here for some interesting grower’s links and resources.
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 aside Teff the only grains 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 isCeliac 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!
Raw amaranth grain is inedible to humans and cannot be digested, thus it has to be prepared and cooked like other grains and becomes fully bio-available in our baked goods. Amaranth is a promising source of nutrition, higher in some nutrients over wheat breads.
The protein contained in amaranth is of an unusually high quality, according to Educational Concerns For Hunger Organization (ECHO). Amaranth grain is particularly high in lysine, an amino acid found in low quantities in other grains. Amaranth grain is free of gluten, which is important for people with gluten intolerance.
It has impressive nutrients, especially: Protein, Calcium, Iron and Zinc, with a slight nutty taste it is great in our muffins, cookies and bread.