Is Amaranth the New Quinoa?

Thirty-six years ago, Science Magazine deemed amaranth, a plant belonging to the same family as beets, chard, and spinach, “the crop of the future.” Yet, here we are in the future and still no amaranth crowding the shelves of local grocery stores. Given the recent health food craze, this is especially puzzling, as amaranth is a close cousin of quinoa (whose overwhelming popularity is probably best evidenced by the fact that, for the most part, consumers now know how to properly pronounce its name).

Like quinoa, the amaranth seed is an exceedingly nutritional pseudocereal (false grain) with an extremely high protein content—amaranth seeds contain 30 percent more protein than rice, sorghum, and rye, according to a USDA Forest Service report. Additionally, the faux-grain is relatively high in calcium, iron, potassium, and magnesium.

Furthermore, the plant’s amino acid profile is about “as close to perfect as you can get for a protein source.” Amaranth also has a particularly high lysine content, an amino acid that is lacking in corn and wheat, according to Pete Noll, executive director of Puente a la Salud Comunitaria (Bridge to Community Health), an Oaxaca-based advocacy group working to promote amaranth’s merits. (We’ll get to the “whys” in a few.) In fact, Amaranth is one of the few vegetable sources with a lysine component, period. If you’re a vegetarian, you understand the weight of this declaration.

We’re not done. Amaranth seeds are six percent fiber by weight. Translation: A 200 gram serving of Amaranth seeds provides half of your daily fiber requirement. And that’s just the seeds. The leaves of the plant are rich in Vitamins K, C, and A, along with Folate (which is essential for healthy cell development during pregnancy), and Vitamin B6.

In terms of proven health benefits, amaranth, due to its high fiber content, promotes weight loss—it’s a great, filling substitute for other grains. Recent studies have shown amaranth seeds, seed oil, and leaves to have various health benefits, including reducing blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and weight, fortifying the immune system, and treating anemia. As antioxidants, amaranth and its derivatives help treat gastro-intestinal tract disorders, and—equally as important—make your hair and skin look great.

Finally, as far as nutrition goes, amaranth has another key characteristic of utmost importance to the modern foodie—it’s gluten-free. Especially in recent years, with the spike in awareness of Celiac disease, for which the only known cure is a gluten-free diet, you would think that Science’s prediction would have come to fruition by now.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of all the purported benefits of this superfood of seemingly epic proportions, but you get the gist. Given all its virtues, it seems puzzling amaranth is not yet a household name like quinoa or kale. When Science labeled amaranth the “crop of the future,” it was operating on the basis that this ancient, inexpensive, nutrient dense crop was a viable means of fighting malnourishment and drought conditions in developing countries. Meanwhile, the publication assumed, and rightly so, that the developed world would covet the plant for its nutritional properties and health benefits.

So, if amaranth is ostensibly a cure for—or at least a way to make a significant dent in—malnutrition in underdeveloped countries, why is it not yet being produced on a large scale? The long and short answer is colonialism, dating all the way back to the time of the Aztecs. Amaranth used to be a staple crop in Mexico, until the arrival of the conquistadors, who, after witnessing its grisly religious context, outlawed the grain and burned most of the crop, forcing locals to replace their former nutrient source with far less healthful corn. Currently, the Mexican populace is suffering from a double-edged sword—childhood malnutrition and an obesity epidemic, issues that feed into one another. Victims of malnutrition tend to eat compulsively when food is available, and are eight times more likely to be overweight or obese as adults (anyone remember Mehrbod?) Groups like the Bridge to Community Health see incorporating amaranth into the Mexican diet as a potential solution to both these epidemics.

Mexican farmers, in turn, would benefit from a resurgence of the amaranth crop, which requires less water to survive than corn, grows fast, is easy to harvest, and could help reduce Mexico’s reliance on imported, less healthy foodstuffs. The problem, however, is that making the switch requires a two-to-four year adjustment period for farmers, who often cannot afford such a setback. Additionally, Mexican consumers, set in their ways and uneducated as to the plant’s nutritional value, are unlikely to consciously make the switch from corn to amaranth.

…And the politics of colonialism continue. I bet our health-conscious readers are clamoring for some amaranth as I speak. Unfortunately, that’s both a good and a bad thing. Turning amaranth into a cash crop might be a way for the Mexican government to make a few quick bucks, but it’s likely such a move would do more harm than good for native Mexicans, both economically and in terms of health. In Bolivia, for example, the worldwide demand for quinoa has led to the conversion of many natural areas into farmland, and the price of the grain has skyrocketed to such an extent that the locals can no longer afford what was once one of their best sources of nutrition. Food for thought.

On a recent trip to my father’s native Jamaica, I unknowingly ate amaranth greens—known as callaloo in the Caribbean—with nearly every meal. In my humble opinion, they are well worth the hype. Try out this below-the-radar superfood yourself in the form of your favorite recipe from the slideshow above…but take it with a grain of salt.