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, 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. Belize Herbs 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.
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. Belize Herbs 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-Saharan Africa where water sources are few, especially in the dry season. Belize Herbs 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!
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.” Belize Herbs 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-lowering 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). Belize Herbs 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. In fact, more whole grains are gluten-free than gluten-containing! Belize Herbs 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, maybe you’ll take a moment to maybe try to research some amaranth recipes readily available online and start to feel the benefit!