Amaranth is a moderately tall, broad-leafed, bushy type of plant which grows up to 2 meters. The plants produces brightly colored flowers which contains large number of small seeds (slightly bigger than poppy seeds). Worldwide people use Amaranth leaves as vegetables, Amaranth seeds as cereals and the plants as ornamental plants. While there are numerous species of amaranth plants, only three are used for grains – Amaranthus caudatus, Amaranthus cruentus, and Amaranthus hypochondriacus.
Science Magazine first in 1977 termed it as “the crop of future”. It quite truly claimed that Amaranth seed is highly nutritional pseudocereal (false grain) with high protein content as compared to true cereals and absolutely free from gluten. This ancient crop was considered inexpensive and nutrition dense crop for third world country to fight malnourishment and drought conditions. While the developed western countries considered it as symbol of ancient indigenous culture, gulten free, palatable and nutritious food offering various health benefits.
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History of Amaranth
If you visit India, most of the small stores and street vendors could be spotted selling packets of confections / ladoos of Amaranth popped seeds and sugar/jaggery syrup. Very much native of Andes Mountains, it had been cultivated by ancient Aztec and Inca civilizations. Today the crop has well adopted in the Indian Sub continent and is a popular crop. Consumption of amaranth seeds is allowed during fast by religious Hindus as they do not consider this as cereal.
Initial records show that Amaranth was used even 6000 years ago. A historical record shows that over 20000 tons of amaranth grain was sent from various provinces to Tenochtitlan (present-day Mexico City) annually as tribute to Aztec emperor.
Kiwicha as it is known in Andes, was staple food of Incas and Aztecs. Kiwicha or Huautli, as termed by Aztecs was used to prepare ritual food during Aztec month of Panquetzaliztli for worshipping hummingbird god – Huitzilopochtli, which they made out of huautli seeds and honey.
Some species of flowering Amaranth are belived to have originated in Greece. Name “Amaranth” derives from Greek ἀμάραντος (amarantos) meaning “never fading flower”. Name is also similar to Artemis legend hunter and king – Amarynthus. Amaranth was believed to be sacred to Artemis. It was considered symbol of immortality and God sent with special healing powers.
Ancient colonial traders would have brought this seed from South America to India. Then it was believed to be eaten only by kings – which got its name Rajgira (king seed). Today it is widely cultivated in South America, parts of Indian subcontinent and China. Chinese use Amaranth seeds for its cure against infections, rashes and migraines.
Nutritional Value of Amaranth
Protein content of Amaranth grain is much higher than other grains like wheat, rye. What makes amaranth unique is that it does not contain any gluten! It is must for all gluten free vegan diet. It contains about 14% by weight as protein. Amongst the protein, Amaranth seeds contain lysine, an essential amino acid, which is mainly found in non-vegetarian diet. Amaranth is one of the few vegetable sources which contain lysine. Book – Gathering the Desert – compares Amarnth with meat, calling Amaranth green – Meat of poor people.
Amaranth seeds are good source of dietary fibers, about 6% by weight constitute fibers. A serving involving 200 grams of amaranth seeds is good enough to meet half of your daily dietary requirement of fibers.
Amaranth seed contains mainly long chain unsaturated omega 6 fatty acids – about 2.7% by weight. Mineral content of Amaranth includes Magnesium, Manganese, Phosphorus, Iron, copper and Selenium. (100 gm of Amaranth provides 62%, 167%, 60%, 42%, 26% and 27% of daily requirements of these minerals respectively. It also contains Zinc, potassium and calcium (meeting around 15% daily requirement per 100 grams).
Amaranth leaves are rich in Vitamin K. Around 100 g of amaranth leaves contains about 1140 mcg of Vitamin K which is around 14X your daily requirement. It is also rich in Vitamin C and Vitamin A, both over 50% of your daily requirement. Other vitamins include Folate and Vitamin B6.
Amaranth flakes are found to be dense in Selenium. Around 100 grams of Amaranth flakes are good enough for your daily selenium requirement. It also offers good source of dietary fibers and protein.
Amaranth is also rich dietary source of beta-sitosterol and other phytosterols. A study found that it contains all three major phytosterols (beta-sitosterol, campesterol, stigmas-terol) and total sterol content was found to be very high.
Health benefits of Amaranth
Traditionally amaranth seeds have been used for their nutritional value and health benefits subsequent. Some of the recent studies have shown distinct health benefits of amaranth seeds, seed oil and leaves. Some of these include benefits to reduce blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and weight, increase immunity, treat anemia, gastro intestinal tract disorders and other benefits from its antioxidant properties, anti inflammatory properties and benefits for skin and hair. Some term amaranth as Third millennium food. Some of the benefits of Kiwicha or Amaranth are discussed below:
Gluten-free food to treat Celiac Disease
Many people in US suffer from Celiac disease, a disease due sensitivity to gluten, resulting damage to mucus membrane of intestine. Only known therapy for treating celiac disease is to avoid gluten. But for vegans, this is difficult, as most of our grains and cereals contain gluten. Amaranth which is gluten free is excellent substitute for cereals. It offers very much similar nutritional profile as other cereals. Thus add amaranth to your diet to treat Celiac disease.
Amaranth for Weight loss
Like all fibrous grains, amaranth is excellent food to help your pursuit of weight loss. It has high protein content along with carbohydrates and also provides good resource of dietary fibers, which reduces calories per gram of food consumed. Further phytonutrients in Amaranth and fibers keep cholesterol absorption under control. Though amaranth would not help reduce your weight drastically, but offers you good substitutes for your weight loss regime.
Amaranth is good for your heart
Amaranth reduces incidence of heart related problem. Fibers in amaranth along with stanols, squalene and other potent inhibitors prevent absorption of bad cholesterol and bile acid in body. Amaranth also has presence of various amino acids which offers benefits for your heart. A study found that protein concentrate from Amaranth can be used as supplement in diet to prevent cardio vascular disease.
Amaranth seeds are packed with potent bioactive peptides which help in functioning of blood circulatory system and reduce blood pressure. Amaranth seed oil can be used for preventing and treating various coronary heart disease and hypertension. A study on chickens showed that intake of amaranth oil reduced amount of total cholesterol, triglycerides, LDL and VLDL significantly. Further amaranth oil contains various poly unsaturated fatty acids including omega 3 fatty acids which are useful on reducing risk of hypertension and cardiovascular diseases.
Antioxidant properties of Amaranth Oil
Antioxidant activity has been reported in several of the various fractions of amaranth including amaranth seed oil, leaves and sprouts. Today amaranth oil has been marketed as effective antioxidant supplement. Antioxidant activity of Amaranth can be attributed to Vitamin E, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Squalene and other phenolic acids and flavonoids. An in-vitro study found that Amaranth seeds source of potential antioxidants, where as another study found amaranth seeds and sprouts showed similar antioxidant activity.
Amaranth and preventing Cancer
Lunasin, a peptide in Amaranth seeds and Squalene are considered to exert anti-cancer properties to Amaranth. Squalene is a chemoprotective substance and reduces risk of cancer and has anti-tumor property.
Amaranth good for treating Anemia
Iron deficiency is one of the common reasons for anemia. Amaranth seeds with high iron content can be considered good for treating Anemia.
Amaranth for treating Gastro-Intestinal disorders
Dietary Fibers are important for treating gastro intestinal disorders. Amaranth seed contains about 8-20% fibers. Further Vitamin A and Vitamin E is good mucus membrane of intestine and digestive tract.
Amaranth to boost immunity
Some studies have found that Amaranth may boost immune function. This can be attributed to powerful vitamins, minerals and antioxidants in amaranth. Squalene found in high content in amaranth oil has recently been used as an immunologic adjuvant in vaccines.
Amaranth on regulating blood glucose
Research on benefits of amaranth on regulating blood sugar is quite conflicting. While some reports suggest it lowers blood sugar levels and protect against insulin deficiency, other reports have shown high glycemic index of amaranth seeds.
Study published in Plant foods for Human Nutrition, suggested that wheat flour fortified with amaranth flour helped reduce blood glucose levels. Similarly a study found amaranth seeds and oil beneficial for correcting high blood sugar and thus preventing diabetic condition. Another study also confirmed amaranth seeds and oil supplementation to improve the glucose and lipid metabolism in drug induced diabetic rats. On the contrary as study reports amaranth supplements good for athletes due to its high glycemic and insulinemic response.
Amaranth a potential anti-allergic food
Research has found amaranth grain with potential to fight allergies and sees it as potential for developing anti-allergic products. A Japanese study found amaranth grain extract shows immune response during allergic disease.
Anti inflammatory effects of Amaranth Seed oil
Amaranth seed oil with high content of squalene, tocopherols and tocotrienols exerts anti-inflammatory effects. It has been found effective on psoriasis vulgaris and dermatitis atopica.
Benefits of Amaranth oil for skin
Amaranth seed oil has unique spectrum of unsaturated fatty acids with high content of squalene, tocopherols and tocotrienols. This makes the oil effective raw material for skin care products. Further amaranth is rich source of Vitamin E and Vitamin C which is good for skin growth. External application of amaranth oil helps in improving skin quality, retarding aging of skin, development of wrinkles and damage due to harsh environment. Amaranth oil also supports treatment of dermatic diseases including herpes, eczema, mycosis, burns, etc.
Benefits of Amaranth for hair
Amaranth oil has been long used as home remedy for prevention of graying of hair. Application of fresh amaranth leaves paste or juice prevents hair loss and supports their pigmentation. These home remedies have lead to research on benefits of amaranth on hair and today you would find patents on Amaranth oil for hair compositions. Some reviews of Amaranth oil claim to have found improved hair texture and lusture.
Some other benefits of Kiwicha
Kiwicha is found beneficial in treatment of ulcers, diarrhea, swollen throat and other conditions. Not much information is available with respect to this.
Side Effects of Amaranth
- Some species of Amaranth seems to offer anti-nutritional and toxic effect. Oxlates and Nitrates are some key culprits found in Amaranth. However cooking and processing has found to eliminate some of these side effects. Hence amaranth should always be eaten cooked.
- With small amount of oxalic acid, Amaranth should be avoided by patients suffering from kidney problem. Amaranth is found to absorb complex nitrates and heavy metals like cadmium from soil as well, hence it may offer some side effects based on area where it is grown.
- Amaranth impacts immune function, blood sugar levels and blood pressure and it can interact with similar drugs and medicines.
Uses of Amaranth
Amaranth seed – The seeds are eaten as a cereal grain. Else the flour is used for cooking various dishes. Popped Seeds or toasted seeds are also widely used in cooking. Popped seed finds its use as snack and cooking.
Amaranth Greens – Amaranth leaves are also consumed across the globe as a leaf vegetable. Boiled leaves are used in various recipes along with other herbs and spices in Southeast Asia, Caribbean and Indian subcontinent. It is a traditional food plant in Africa and considered boost for food security problems and sustainable agriculture. In China, amaranth greens are believe to improve eyesight.
Amaranth Stem and root – Stem is also used as vegetable and animal fodder. The root of mature amaranth is used as vegetable along with tomato or tamarind gravy.
Dyes – Flowers of Amaranth are used as source of deep red dye due to presence of betalins. Hopi tribe of America are believed to have used this “Hopi Red dye”.
Ornamentals – Various species of Amaranth are considered as ornamental trees for its bright flowering. The plant is also home to various species of butterflies and makes it a garden tree.
Amaranth Oil – Amaranth oil obtained from seeds contains mostly unsaturated acids and considered good for health benefits. It also contains one of the highest source of important chemical – Squalene.
How to use Amaranth?
You can enjoy amaranth in various forms either as whole grain, popped grain, toasted grain or flour / starch. You can mix upto 25% of amaranth flour to your cereal flour to improve nutritional value. In fact blending extruded amaranth to maize was found to increase its nutritional value.
Many other food items using Amaranth include – Cookies and crackers, Snack bars, Breakfast cereals including Porridge, Confections, crepes, pancakes, Pilaf, Baked foods, Dumplings, tostadas, tortillas, fritos, Toppings, Breadings, Beverages, Soup or Fillers.
Amaranth is also used as thickener for roux, white sauces, soups and stews. Amaranth sprouts are good source of phtyonutrients helpful for body.
Why isn’t amaranth is used in gluten-free baking, but always fortified? Amaranth in baked foods will be dense due to its emulsifying and hygroscopic properties. But fluffy baked foods is only possible through blending amaranth with other cereals.
Effect of Processing on the Nutritive Value – Heat and other processing though improves the digestibility but reduces impact of bioactive nutrients in amaranth.
How to select good quality amaranth – Amaranth can be bought as whole grain or flour or flakes. Good quality amaranth is crisp, low in moisture content.
How to store amaranth – Amaranth should always be stored in cool and dry place, preferably in air tight container.
Some exciting Amaranth recipes for kids
Soak amaranth seeds in 4 times as much water in a saucepan. Heat this on medium heat and bring to boil. Then add some cardamom, cinnamon, grated coconut or coconut milk and honey. Simmer the mixture for some time, till you find water sufficiently absorbed by amaranth. Keep stirring for couple of minutes. Stop heating, allow it to cool and then serve. Add some washed blueberries, cut banana, strawberries or other seasonal fruits and pieces of walnuts, and some more honey before you serve. Sprinkle some more popped amaranth seeds to appear dry.
Try variant – four seed porridge using amaranth seeds, buckwheat, Oats and Quinoa. Heating the seeds in little ghee/butter before adding water will enhance some flavours.
Soak 2 tbsp of unflavoured gelatin in ½ cup of water for couple of minutes. Heat this until all gelatin is dissolved. Add a cup of condensed milk, a cup of evaporated milk and 2 cups of more water. Allow this mixture to heat over medium heat. Add 3 cups of popped kiwacha and some more gelatin and mix.
Pour this into jelly moulds and allow to set in refrigerator. While serving add some more popped amaranth seed.
Mix ¼ cup gin, 1 cup milk, 1 egg, ½ cp of sugar syrup, 1 tsp of grenadine syrum, pinch of grounded cinnamon, 1 cup of toasted Kiwcha seeds and some ice cubes. Blend this mixture till smooth and soft and then serve.
What are other names of Amaranth?
- Mexico – huautli and alegría
- Spanish – Kiwicha, Amaranto
- French – amarante caudeé, amarante queue de renard
- Portuguese : Amaranto de cauda
- South America – Kiwicha, amarantu, trigu inka, achis, achita, chaquilla, sangorache, borlas, inka hakatu, ataku, sankurachi, hawarcha millmi, quymi
- English – Blood amaranth, red amaranth, purple amaranth, prince’s feather, Mexican grain amaranth. Love-lies-bleeding, red-hot, cattail, bush green, Inca wheat tassel flower, quilete
- India – shravani maath or rajgira (Marathi), ramdana, keerai, khada saga, Chau lai (Hindi) Chu, Chua (Kumauni), dhantinasoppu, harive (Kannada), cheera (Malayalam); tampala, Khada saga, Saga Bhaja (Oriya), thotakura pappu (Telgu)
- Chinese – Chinese spinach, hinn choy or yin tsoi
- Caribbean – callaloo
- Indonesia – bayam
- Thai – phak khom
- Philippines – kilitis, kulitis, kalunay
- Vietnam – rau dền
- Nigeria – efo tete or arowo jeja