Amaranth, the lost grain

photo of Amaranth from Think Stock photos/Tri County Health Department

As all good stories, the tale of amaranth is a saga of near-defeat and an unexpected come-back. Six thousand years ago, the ancient Aztecs used amaranth as a staple grain in their cuisine. The beautiful plant grows 2-8 feet tall on a straight stalk, has broad leaves, and a colorful flower head with thousands of tiny gold, red, or brown seeds. The Aztecs made good use of the plant, utilizing both the leaves and the seeds in their daily meals. In fact, the plant was so central to their lives that the seeds were also incorporated into their spiritual practices. When the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs occurred in the 1500s, the Spanish outlawed the production of amaranth—destroying crops and burning fields—in an effort to stamp out the Aztecs’ pagan religion. The crop all but disappeared from that region. But the name “amaranth” comes from the ancient Greek word meaning “the never-fading”. And true to its name, the small but mighty grain continued to live on in small pockets of the countryside, mostly used to create alegriaa delicious, sticky dessert made of popped amaranth kernels, held together by honey. Over time, its use grew and spread across the globe, until finally in the 1970s it was brought to the United States.

What’s so special about amaranth?

Amaranth is a pseudo-cereal. This means that its seeds are eaten as a starchy staple, similar to familiar cereal grains such as rice and wheat. However, while cereal grains are all part of the botanical family Poaceae (or the grass family), amaranth is part of another botanical family called Amaranthaceae (this is the same family as beets and Swiss chard).

Nuritionally, this tiny seed has a lot to offer! First, it is a good source of plant-based protein. It contains 12.5-22.5% protein, which is high compared to most cereal plants, including brown rice and quinoa. It is sometimes thought of as a complete protein, because it contains most of the essential amino acids, and is particularly high in lysine. Since lysine is the amino acid that many grains are lacking, supplementing grain-based foods such as tortillas and bread with some amaranth flour can help create a complete protein.

Second, this grain is a good source of minerals, including iron, calcium, and magnesium. In terms of vitamins, amaranth is similar to other grains and contains vitamin B6 and folate.

Third, amaranth is a good source of fiber. Dietary fiber is healthy in many ways, including helping maintain a healthy digestive tract. Most Americans do not consume enough dietary fiber. Adding some amaranth to your diet is a great way to up your fiber and whole grain intake.

Last but not least, amaranth is gluten-free! For individuals with celiac disease or gluten-intolerance, the addition of amaranth grain into meals is a simple way to increase the quality of their plant-based protein intake.

How can I jump on the amaranth band-wagon??

Whole amaranth can be purchased at most grocery stores, either in the bulk isle or in the isle with other grains, like quinoa and rice. It can be cooked and eaten like other grains, by boiling with water in a 1:3 (amaranth to water) ratio. Amaranth can also be bought as a flour and added to baked goods. Some products in the grocery store, such as cereals or granola bars, may also contain amaranth.

photo by Kirsten Lackey

Popped amaranth

photo by Kirsten Lackey

My personal favorite way of preparing amaranth is by popping the kernels, much like popped corn! Popped amaranth makes a great cereal—just add milk or yogurt, honey, and fruit. It is also a wonderful crumble for topping baked goods. Mix with some melted butter and brown sugar, and sprinkle on top of zucchini bread or blueberry muffins.

Instructions for Popping Amaranth: 

  1. To start, heat a dry pot or pan on the stove to a high temperature. Test to see if the pot is hot enough by adding a few kernels of amaranth. If they pop within a few seconds, the pot is ready to go!

  2. Add a handful of amaranth to the hot pot—just less than needed to cover the bottom of the pot in a single layer. Place the lid on the pot, and shake continuously over the burner for about 7-10 seconds, until most of the kernels have popped. Amaranth burns easily, so keep the pot moving and don’t wait until every single kernel has popped! The unpopped grains add a great texture and toasted flavor to the mix.

  3. Remove lid and pour the freshly popped amaranth into a bowl. Return the pot to the stove and repeat until you have enough popped amaranth! 
photo by Kirsten Lackey
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