Amaranth: Why is this native Peruvian grain called the “crop of the future”?

Last Updated December 20th, 2021

What is Amaranth?

An extremely adaptable high protein gluten free grain, Amaranth, also called Kwicha Seeds in Peruvian, was a staple food of the Aztec, Mayan and Inca civilizations. This pseudocereal is a native of Peru and has taken the culinary world by storm. This ‘crop of the future’ as described in a 1977 article in Science, is being touted for its astonishing qualities to boost wellness.

Getting to Know Amaranth

Amaranth belongs to the family Amaranthaceae with many species used as food and medicine. The leaves and seeds are edible. These plants are grown in several parts of the world and serve as pseudocereals. Some of the species are used as ornamental plants with many species as weeds. Examples of ornamental species include Prince’s feather (A. hypochondriacus), love-lies-bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus), and Joseph’s coat (A. tricolo).

  • The seed does not completely have the qualities of a cereal grain yet there are few similarities in the nutritional makeup as well as its properties. This is a key reason for the grain to be called a pseudocereal.
  • Known for its high fiber, micronutrients and antioxidants, Amaranth is fast gaining popularity for its associated health benefits.
  • This species has a wide umbrella to include nearly 60 species that have been grown for nearly 8000 years. Interestingly, The Aztec, Inca and Maya civilizations cultivated this grain as a staple food.

Origin and Spread of Amaranth

This plant, a native Peru crop, is considered one of the earliest food crops in the world. Evidence of the use of several of these plant species during prehistoric times by Native Americans shows the presence of these grains from time immemorial.

  • Aztecs appeared to use the seeds and leafy part of the plant as food as well as medicine. The plant also formed an integral part of their cultural celebrations, especially as face and body paint during ceremonies. Ritual drinks and food were prepared using the plant seeds.
  • Amaranth is grown widely in China, Russia, India, Africa, North and South America.
  • In Mexico, this plant is cultivated as a food crop also used to make a candy called Alegría famously used during a Mexican festival.

Plant Facts

Amaranth leaves for nutritionA tropical plant, Amaranth needs about 90 to 120 days to grow. It is easy to grow and harvest with high yields. These plants can be categorized as annuals or short-lived perennials.

  • The plant has a reddish looking stem and spines on some of the species. The leaves resemble the spinach and are edible. The flowers are strikingly colorful with arrangements looking crowded. Thousands of seeds are produced by a single plant, with all species being drought tolerant.
  • The different species of Amaranth serve as leafy vegetables, ornamental plants, and grains. Out of the 60 species, only three are used as food in parts of Asia, Africa and America. They are ‘love-lies-bleeding’, ‘red amaranth (A. cruentus), and ‘prince’s feather’.
  • Many of the Amaranth species are powerful weeds. Called as pigweeds, many of them spread fast just by reseeding themselves. These pigweeds are also resistant to common herbicides.
  • The seeds of the plant can be eaten raw or cooked. The flavor of these seeds is known to be malty and nutty. The extremely nutritious seeds are round and tiny, much like the size of poppy seeds and can get rather sticky when cooked.
  • The leaves and seeds are known for their high nutrition as well as their wide application in a variety of dishes

Nutritional Profile

The amaranth grain is high on micronutrients, protein, and fiber. Additionally, it contains iron, manganese, phosphorous and magnesium in abundance.

In just one serving one can get more than the daily requirement of manganese, a nutrient crucial for the function of the brain and protection from many neurological problems. The seeds have high phosphorous content, needed for healthy bones. Iron is also found in abundance, which helps the body produce blood.

Nutritional composition of a cup of cooked Amaranth (246 gm):

  • Calories: 251
  • Fat: 5.2 grams
  • Carbs: 46 grams
  • Protein: 9.3 grams
  • Copper: 18% of the RDI
  • Selenium: 19% of the RDI
  • Magnesium: 40% of the RDI
  • Phosphorus: 36% of the RDI
  • Manganese: 105% of the RDI
  • Iron: 29% of the RDI

How to Eat Amaranth

These protein powered seeds can be roasted, boiled, and added to many dishes. Raw Amaranth seed can be eaten but when cooked the nutrients are absorbed better in the digestive system.

Slightly cooked amaranth seeds lend a good texture to dishes. Since they are high on nutrients and protein, these seeds can be an ideal way to start the day. They can be combined in soups, salads, and cereals or eaten as a meal.

Food Combinations with Amaranth

The seeds of amaranth are high on calcium, iron, and fiber. These multipurpose protein-enriched seeds can be combined with food in different ways to add to the texture, flavor and taste. It makes for an extremely nutritious breakfast cereal:

Amaranth seeds for health improvement

  • Amaranth seeds can be boiled, popped and roasted.
  • The leaves of the amaranth plant are edible, and it is possible to blend it along with other vegetables.
  • These seeds can be boiled in water or in fresh juice to make a mildly sweet porridge. Along with a dry fruit garnish, this Amaranth porridge could be one good way to start the day.
  • The seeds can make a healthy and tasty snack serving when popped. These seeds can be combined with other grains. It can be used in combination with other cereals too. For instance, Amaranth can be cooked with brown rice.
  • Amaranth can be combined with soups. Not only will it add to the taste of the soup, but the seeds can also be blended in for the right consistency.
  • Stew made with this versatile seed is also a delicacy.
  • Salads with these seeds are not just nutritious but flavorful and tasty too.

Health Benefits of Amaranth

amaranth impotance for health

  • Boon for Celiac Disease
    The amaranth grain is gluten free which is a big boon for the victims of the celiac disease. With the growing numbers of victims of celiac disease, these Amaranth seeds may just be what the doctor ordered.
  • Aids Cardiovascular Health and Heart Attack Prevention
    The grains have abundant dietary fiber. Potassium found in the seeds helps relieve tension and stress in the blood vessels and arteries. These seeds act as an effective vasodilator. Also, phytosterols in these seeds help reduce cholesterol levels which significantly offset the risk of cardiovascular disease and strokes.
  • Aids Metabolism
    Amaranth contains an essential amino acid, Lysine which aids metabolism. Most metabolic disorders hamper proper development of the body and these seeds may prove to be a blessing.
  • Boost to the Immune System
    High levels of Vitamin C in these seeds give an edge to the immune system. It helps improve the production of white blood cell, enhance the repair and healing of cells.
  • Improves Digestion
    Amaranth has a high level of dietary fiber which aids in good bowel movements. It can offset risks of cramping, bloating and constipation.
  • Anti-Carcinogenic
    It is loaded with powerful amino acid, lysine. It also contains Vitamins C and E, iron, phosphorous, magnesium and potassium. These minerals and nutrients help the body do away with free radicals that lead to the development of cancer.
  • Combats Anemia
    Amaranth seeds have the ability to combat anemia as they are loaded with iron. The leaves of the amaranth plant can help improve RBC’s and hemoglobin levels.
  • Provides hair care
    Amaranth is endowed with elevated levels of lysine as compared to other grains. This is crucial for the health of the hair. Research has shown that Lysine can improve the texture and health of the hair. It plays an important role in arresting hair loss and can even remedy premature greying.
  • Helps to control diabetes
    Amaranth grain can help victims of diabetes by controlling blood sugar. It can help keep the insulin levels at the ideal level for better management of diabetes.
  • Eye Care and Cataract Prevention
    It is rich in Vitamin A. This is highly eye-protective as it can prevent the formation of cataracts and retard the progress of macular degeneration.
  • Promotes Growth of Muscles
    These seeds are good for the muscles as it has ample protein, which is needed for muscle growth. The elevated levels of plant protein in the diet help with the healthy development of skin, muscles, cells, and tissues.
  • Prevents Osteoporosis
    Calcium content is high in amaranth seeds. Therefore, the consumption of these seeds can reduce the risk of bone-related diseases like osteoporosis.
  • The leaves of this plant contain Vitamin C, although in small amounts. It can alleviate symptoms of ulcers in the mouth and throat.

Side-Effects of Amaranth

The side effects of Amaranth are not so alarming, yet it is worth a mention:

  • These seeds are best eaten in a boiled/cooked form. This is due to the presence of certain anti-nutrients like nitrates and oxalates that can be removed with boiling.
  • Victims of hypoglycemia must not consume an excess of Amaranth as it can lower insulin levels.
  • Those with allergies or special conditions may take care while eating these seeds. For instance, those who are Lysine protein intolerant should be careful with the consumption of these seeds, as it could cause stomach pain and diarrhea.
  • The presence of lysine can enhance the absorption of calcium. Therefore, it is important to restrict the consumption of lysine and calcium at the same time.

Importance of Amaranth

  • Victims of celiac disease need look no further than Amaranth as a gluten-free and nutritious meal option.
  • It is an excellent option while breaking a fast since it is high on calcium, protein and iron.
  • A perfect pseudo grain or pseudocereal, therefore a must have for those on Paleo diet
  • These seeds are ideal for vegans since they contain 10 essential amino acids.
  • It can assist in maintaining a healthy waistline by reducing belly fat.
  • These seeds compensate for all vital nutrients for lactose-intolerant people like no other replacement.
  • Alegría, a sweet treat that also means ‘Joy’ in Spanish is made using toasted Amaranth seeds along with molasses, chocolate or honey.
  • Amaranth is a famous snack in Mexico and it is at times mixed with puffed rice.
  • Palmer’s amaranth (A. palmeri), a pigweed has become notorious as a pest to soybean and GM cotton crops in America.

Amaranth and Quinoa are being called cousins due to their similarity in appearance, nutritional profile and health benefits. It is no exaggeration that in the realm of health super foods, Amaranth now occupies a pride of place and is veritably the ‘crop of the present and future’!

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