Cultivated by the Aztecs 8,000 years ago, amaranth was used as a staple food and as an important part of their religious ceremonies. When the Spanish conquistadores conquered the Aztecs they forbid the use of amaranth, and it grew wild as a weed. Modern cultivation and research of amaranth began in the USA in the early 1970s, which revealed many health benefits. Today amaranth is grown in Peru, Africa, China, and Russia. It is also grown in northern India and in Mexico, where it is used to make a sweet treat.
The name amaranth means “one that does not wither” and originates from the Greek word “amarantos”. Amaranth is a member of the Chenopodiaceae plant family, which makes it a relative of quinoa, swiss chard, beets and spinach. Like millet and quinoa, amaranth is technically not a grain. It is a seed. Most people refer to it as a grain because it is cooked and eaten much like the grains we are so familiar with.
Here are some nutritional facts about amaranth:
- It contains a high amount of the amino acid lysine, one of the building blocks of protein, which is found in small quantities in other grains such as wheat.
- Has a higher calcium content than any other grain.
- It is a very good source of magnesium, phosphorous, potassium and iron.
- It is contains a high amount of protein (13 to 14%). This protein is considered to be one of the most nutritious vegetable-based proteins, comparable with protein from animal sources.
- Amaranth is an excellent source of fiber – it contains triple the amount found in most grains.
Seven main health benefits of amaranth:
- Amaranth is easy to digest, which makes it suitable for those with sensitive digestive systems.
- Because of the high protein and fiber content, amaranth is low glycemic – meaning that it digests slowly, keeping the blood sugar level even (no blood sugar spike).
- The fiber content of amaranth is helpful for the digestive and elimination system, and for lowering cholesterol levels.
- The high levels of magnesium, calcium and iron are beneficial for the bones (regarding osteoporosis) and the blood (regarding anemia).
- It is gluten free – therefore a good choice for people who are celiac or sensitive to gluten (found in rye, barley and various types of wheat)
- Amaranth could possibly block inflammation and even prevent cancer, according to a study done in 2008.
- Three separate studies (one in Russia, one in Guelph Ontario and one in Madison Wisconsin) indicated that amaranth could be beneficial for heart health by lowering cholesterol levels. Possible reasons: the high amount of phytosterols found in amaranth; because of amaranth’s oil content, and/or because of its high fiber content.
How is amaranth cooked and used?
- It is eaten like a grain in place of rice, or eaten as a porridge: cook 1 cup of amaranth in 3 cups of water (amaranth has a great capacity to absorb water)
- Amaranth flour can be used in baking – but it is best used with other gluten free flours, because using it alone would produce very heavy baked goods. The addition of amaranth flour enhances the nutrition of baked goods because of its protein, fiber and mineral content.
- Amaranth can be popped: using a very hot dry frying pan, pop a small amount at a time (1 tsp to 1 Tbsp) in the same way that popcorn is popped. It has a mild, nutty taste and can be sprinkled over fruit, yogurt, soups or salads, or mixed into healthy nutritional snack bars.
- It can be used to thicken soups or stews: Add a couple of tablespoons to the soup or stew while it is cooking.
Here are direct links to a couple of interesting gluten free amaranth recipes:
All in all, amaranth has many health benefits for us, whether we are looking for a healthy, gluten free, low glycemic alternative to wheat or wanting a different source of protein to have at breakfast. It might be an ancient “grain” but it certainly has modern benefits!
Have you been wondering what interesting and highly nutritious foods you could add to your dietary lifestyle to increase your energy, reduce your risk of pre-diabetes or diabetes and build your health? Contact me – we can talk about which wholesome foods would suit your unique needs!
© 2014 Cathy Ormon Health Coach. All rights reserved.