Amaranth 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.
Grain amaranth is also grown as a food crop in limited amounts in Mexico, where it is used to make a candy called alegría (Spanish for happiness) at festival times. Amaranth species that are still used as a grain are Amaranthus caudatus, Amaranthus cruentus, and Amaranthus hypochondriacus. The grain is popped and mixed with honey. In North India, it is called “rājgīrā” (राजगीरा). The popped grain is mixed with melted jaggery in proper proportion to make iron and energy rich “laddus,” a popular food provided at the Mid-day Meal Program in municipal schools.
Amaranth grain can also be used to extract amaranth oil – a particularly valued pressed seed oil with many commercial uses.
Amaranth is not a “true” grain, but classified as a pseudo-cereal, as it is not part of the Poaceae botanical family. However it is listed with other grains as its nutritional profile and uses are similar to true cereal grains. Thanks to the lively, peppery taste of amaranth and the higher level of protein it contains compared to most other grains, amaranth is today rising in popularity. Amaranth is not grown in large quantities in Australia so most amaranth is imported.
Main Culinary Uses
- Amaranth flour – 100% amaranth flour may be used in any recipe that doesn’t require gluten to rise like pancakes, biscuits, flat breads, and pastas. Non-gluten flours like amaranth will not rise in yeast breads, so amaranth flour can only be substituted for about 30% of the gluten containing flour you choose (i.e. wheat, rye etc).
- Puffed amaranth seed – Amaranth is more commonly found as a puffed seed within health shops and some supermarkets in Australia. It can be added to breakfast cereals, salads and baked goods.
- Whole raw amaranth seed – can be boiled for 20 minutes to create a gluten free version of porridge.
- Amaranth flakes – can be mixed with other cereal grains or added to baked goods, cereal bars and desserts.
- Sprouted amaranth – goes well in salads or cereals.
- Gluten free specialty foods – amaranth is increasingly being used in Australia to manufacture gluten free foods like breakfast cereals and pasta, as sold in health food stores and major supermarkets.
Raw grain amaranth has many nutrients, however it is inedible to humans and cannot be digested. Thus it has to be prepared and cooked like other grains. It is suggested that cooked amaranth is a promising source of nutrition comparable to wheat bread – higher in some nutrients and lower in others.
The protein contained in amaranth is of an unusually high quality, according to Educational Concerns For Hunger Organization (ECHO). The actual nutritional value of amaranth as human food is less than would be expected from raw amaranth grain data. According to ECHO, this is due to anti-nutritional factors in raw amaranth grain. Examples of anti-nutritional factors present in amaranth include oxalates, nitrates, saponins and phenolic compounds. Cooking methods such as boiling amaranth in water and then discarding the water may reduce the grain’s toxic effects.
Amaranth grain is particularly high in lysine, an amino acid found in low quantities in other grains. Amaranth grain is deficient in essential amino acids such as leucine and threonine – both of which are present in wheat germ. Amaranth grain is free of gluten, which is important for people with gluten intolerance.
- High protein content (13-14%) and a carrier of lysine, an amino acid that’s missing or negligible in many other grains.
- Consists of 6 to 9% of oil which is higher than most other cereals. Amaranth oil contains approximately 77% unsaturated fatty acids and is high in linoleic acid.
- High in dietary fibre.
- Gluten free.
- High in iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and appreciable amounts of calcium.
- A rich dietary source of phytosterols, with cholesterol-lowering properties.
- Contains a lunasin-like peptide and other bioactive peptides which are thought to have cancer-preventive and antihypertensive properties.