Though not a vegetarian, I’m interested in learning about plant-based sources of healthy protein that can contribute to a balanced whole foods diet. In the quinoa post, we learned that many whole grains actually contain more usable protein than meat, and amaranth is one of those lesser-known grains with an astounding nutritional profile.
You should really get to know each other…
Originating in Mexico and Central America, amaranth was an important food staple for the Aztecs and was also used in festivals and religious practices- namely human sacrifice. Not too appetizing, I know. I thought it was worth mentioning because, although having been used in sacrificial rituals, the word amaranth comes from the Greek word for “everlasting” or “one that does not whither.” Hmm, ironic or sensible? Chew on that for a while.
It is still a popular ingredient in many Mexican dishes, often used for making sweets, candies and a traditional chocolate drink called Atole (recipe below). In the past two decades, amaranth has spread throughout the world to become an important food source in countries such as Nepal, India, and Africa. Perhaps this is due to the plant’s adaptability to harsh climate and drought resistant nature. A true “everlasting” grain, I suppose. It became more widely cultivated domestically by the 1970s, and amaranth is now grown throughout the U.S. and can be easily found in most health food stores.
Tiny grain, big benefits
And I mean TINY: don’t accidentally drop a bag on the floor, you’ll be finding these sand-like grains in your grout for months. Though small, this yellow grain packs a punch with a strong flavor and abundance of vitamins and minerals. Because amaranth is actually a seed, or the fruit of the plant- impersonating a grain, I know! – it is higher in protein content than other grains. It has a well-balanced combination of amino acids, the building blocks of protein, including the amino acid, lysine, which is uncommon in most grains. Most plant-based protein is easily digestible, so amaranth is yummy for your tummy.
Amaranth is high in iron, calcium, magnesium, manganese, Vitamin E, zinc, copper, and a slew of other beneficial vitamins and minerals, including Vitamin C, which no other grains contain. These micronutrients found in amaranth help build healthy brain cells, improve muscular function, and are good for your heart. Also, it’s low-glycemic and a gluten-free grain. Celiacs can easily substitute amaranth flour for wheat flour, plus it has triple the fiber.
I cup of uncooked amaranth has 251 calories, 4g fat (no cholesterol), 26g of protein, 13g of fiber, 31% DV of Calcium, 82% DV of Iron, and 14%DV of Vitamin C.
Apparently the leaves are edible too, but I’ll have to get back to you on whether or not they’re palatable. Anyone tried it?
How to: cook amaranth
You can find amaranth in the bulk isle of health food stores as a whole grain, milled into a flour, or rolled like oats. You can boil it and dress it up like you would for a bowl of porridge, add amaranth flour to baked goods for added nutrients, or use it in a vegetable pilaf. You can even POP amaranth like popcorn, then eat it as cold cereal with milk.
To boil: bring 2 1/2 cups of water to boil, add 1 cup amaranth and let simmer for 20- 25 minutes: yields 3 cups. Add another 1/2 cup of water for a porridge-like consistency.
To pop: heat a tablespoon at a time on high heat in a skillet. Take it out as soon as most of the grains pop so it doesn’t burn.
Store in the fridge or cool place in an airtight container to prevent the fats in it from going rancid. Shelf life 3-4 months.
Popped amaranth cereal with sesame seeds
Creamy Cannellini Bean and Amaranth Soup
Amaranth and quinoa stuffed red peppers
Amaranth Atole recipe (thick drink from Mexico, have not tried this yet)
Amaranth street candy- Alegrias recipe
How Stuff Works: Discovery Health
Side-by-side comparison of macronutrients in whole grains from Versagrain
Amaranth leaves are edible too: some recipes here Whole Grains Council
Information about growing amaranth
Great blog post by My New Roots