Know Your Fruits and Veggies™: Amaranth

food - amaranth flowerAmaranth – Is it a veggie, grain, flower or all three?

Amaranth is a bushy herbaceous annual plant that grows 5 – 7 feet in height with broad leaves and a showy flower head of small, red or magenta, flowers. The seed heads resemble corn tassels, but are somewhat bushier. Amaranth is not in the grass family; it is, actually, a relative of lamb’s-quarters and Cockscomb and is not considered a cereal grain. However, since it is used much like cereal grains, it is often called a pseudo-cereal. Each plant is capable of producing 40,000 to 60,000 seeds. The seeds are tiny (1/32″); lens shaped, and is a golden to creamy tan color, sprinkled with some occasional dark colored seeds.

Amaranth is native to Central and South America and has been cultivated for 8,000 years. It was a staple food of the Aztecs and used as an integral part of religious ceremonies. Because of its ceremonial use, the cultivation of amaranth was banned by the Spanish conquistadors in the 1500’s.

Luckily, the plant has continued to grow as a weed since that time, so its genetic base has been largely preserved. Now, over 400 varieties are found throughout the world in both temperate and tropical climates, and fall roughly into one (or more) of four categories: grain, vegetable, ornamental or weed.

Amaranth is extremely adaptable to adverse growing conditions. It resists heat and drought, has no major disease problems and is among the easiest of plants to grow. It will produce food under harsh and lackluster nutrient conditions, much like grain sorghum. It is a very efficient grain crop with yields comparable to rice or maize.

Simply scratching the soil, throwing down some seeds and watering will reward you with some of these lovely plants.

Amaranth is a highly nutritious and versatile food. Both leaves and seeds contain protein of high quality; it’s an excellent food source for vegans. Amaranth seed is high in protein (15%-18%) and contains respectable amounts of lysine and methionine, two essential amino acids that are not frequently found in grains. Amaranth, used in combination with wheat, corn or brown rice, results in a complete protein as high in food value as fish, red meat or poultry.

It is high in fiber (3 times that of wheat), calcium (2 times that of milk), iron (5 times that of wheat), potassium, phosphorus, vitamins A and C and contains tocotrienols (a form of vitamin E), all of which have cholesterol-lowering activity in humans. It consists of 6%-10% oil, which is found mostly within the germ, and is predominantly unsaturated and high in linoleic acid, which is important in human nutrition.

The amaranth seeds have a unique quality in that the nutrients are concentrated in a natural “nutrient ring” that surrounds the center, which is the starch section. For this reason the nutrients are protected during processing.

The leaves of the amaranth plant taste much like spinach and are used in the same food - amaranth - leaves and shootsmanner that spinach is used. They are best if consumed when the plant is young and tender. The leaves, shoots and tender stems can also be added to sauces or soups, cooked with other vegetables, or alone.

The seed or grain is also edible and has mild, sweet, nutty and malt like tastes, depending on the variety.

As with other small grains, amaranth may be processed in popped, flaked, extruded and ground into flour forms. The flour and/or flaked forms are combined with wheat or other flours to make cereals, cookies, bread and other baked goods. Amaranth flour contains no gluten, but studies have shown that it can be blended at 50%-75% levels and still maintain functional properties and flavor. In the preparation of flatbreads, pancakes and pastas, 100% amaranth flour can be used.

Coarsely ground amaranth makes a tasty and nutritious porridge cooked by itself or mixed with other grains and pseudo-cereals such as oats or wheat [e.g. Ralston’s® or Cream of Wheat®, milled flax seed, wheat germ and cañihua]. The seeds can be added to stir-fry or to soups and stews as a nutrient dense thickening agent. Amaranth has a “sticky” texture that contrasts with the fluffier texture of most grains and should not be overcooked, as it can become “gummy.”

Food - amaranth grainAmaranth can also be popped like popcorn or toasted. Sprouting the seeds will increase the level of some of the nutrients and the sprouts can be used in sandwiches and in salads, or just to munch on.

Chopped plants have been used as forage for livestock. And, the flowers make nice ornamentals, fresh or dried.

“Modern research” on amaranth began in the U.S. in the 1970s. Since 1975, amaranth has been gaining support in the U.S. and is now grown in Colorado, Illinois, Nebraska and other states. It still is not considered a mainstream food, but is found in many natural food stores and the flour is often used in baked goods.

Amaranth seeds, or flour, keep best if stored in a tightly sealed container, such as a glass jar, in the refrigerator. This will protect the fatty acids it contains from becoming rancid. The seeds should be used within 3 to 6 months.

Fresh amaranth should be treated like fresh spinach.

For something new, different and highly nutritious in your diet, try amaranth. Have fun experimenting and discovering your favorite ways to use it.

Quick Cooking Tips

To cook amaranth seeds boil 1 cup in 2-1/2 cups liquid, such as water, stock or apple juice, until seeds are tender, about 18 to 20 minutes. Add some fresh herbs or gingerroot to the cooking liquid to add flavors to the mix.

For a breakfast cereal increase the cooking liquid to 3 cups and sweeten with Stevia or honey and add raisins, dried fruit, allspice and some nuts.

Amaranth with Spinach Tomato Mushroom Sauce

Sources

Amaranth Grain Production Guide. 1990. Rodale Press, Inc. Emmaus, PA, USA, 18049.

Amaranth Round-up. 1977. Rodale Press, Inc. Emmaus, PA, USA, 18049

Amaranth: from the Past, for the Future. Rodale Press. Emmaus, PA, USA, 18049.

Myers, Robert L. Grain Amaranth: A Lost Crop of the Americas. Thomas Jefferson Agricultural Institute, Columbia, MO, USA, 65203. http://www.jeffersoninstitute.org/pubs/amaranth.shtml

O’Brien, G. Kelly and Dr. Martin L. Price. Amaranth Grain & Vegetable Types. 1983 revised 2008. Echo