May 24, 2017

Stone Age Snack – Amaranth, the Smallest Giver of Life, the Never Fading

What you eat in private, you wear in public.

Aan de Kook

Farmer Adolfo Lopez of San Andrés Zautla, Oaxaca.
Amaranth grain and leaf producer.
Courtesy of Puente a la Salud Comunitaria
In ancient Mesoamerica amaranth was known as huautli, meaning "the smallest giver of life," and was grown in quantities similar to corn. 

It is named from the Greek amarantos which means ‘the never fading’ or ‘everlasting’ either because its flower buds retain their vivid color after drying or because it is a survivor.  It comes up readily in the garden and can be rather invasive if not kept in check.  It is very hardy and can thrive in environments ranging from the wet tropics to semiarid lands and from sea level to mountainsides 10,000 feet above. It can tolerate very acid or highly alkaline soils, long equatorial days and short temperate ones, dry spells, heat and mild salty conditions.

Amaranth was a staple food for the Aztecs 6,000 to 8,000 years ago.  It was part of their culture, along with beans, corn, chia and squash seeds.  They believed it gave them supernatural powers and used it in ceremonies often involving human sacrifice. Some 20,000 tons of the seeds were delivered by Aztec farmers in annual tributes (equivalent to yearly corn tributes) to their emperor, Montezuma.  It was possible the Aztecs reserved amaranth as a delicacy for the higher ups, the kings. 

Amaranth has been cultivated as a grain for 8,000 years. It is classified as a pseudo-cereal; not from the same family as wheat or rice but rather the spinach and beet family. Archaeologists have traced it to Puebla, Mexico, around 4,000 B.C., but believe it originated in Central or South America.  

When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, amaranth almost disappeared from the native diet. No one knows exactly why.  One theory holds that the Aztecs formed images of their gods with amaranth during the sacred month of Huitzilopochtli (Sun or War God).  These edible sculptures of Aztec deities were maybe even laced with human blood.  At the end of the month, these statues ‘bones’ and ‘meat’ were eaten in religious rituals by the families to ‘take the God into them’.  This worship was seen as barbaric, a mockery of Holy Communion, and a pagan threat to Spanish Catholicism. Hernan Cortes stopped the tradition by making it a deadly offense to grow or possess amaranth.  Unlike corn that needs human intervention to survive, amaranth (the survivor) kept growing as a weed so its genetic base was largely preserved.

Seeds falling in hand
In current Mexican culture on the Day of the Dead, amaranth seeds are offered as snack foods for the spirits. Edible skulls were historically made with amaranth seeds, although today they are regrettably made of sugar.

Amaranth is making a comeback as a popular superfood. The seed, commonly referred to as grain, is gluten-free and a good source of protein (from 14-18% vs. 12-14% in wheat). Its ability to meet human protein needs exceeds that found in soybeans, milk and wheat thanks, also, to its higher digestibility score. Unlike other grains, amaranth is rich in the essential amino acid lysine. When combined with corn, which is deficient in lysine, a ‘protein score'’ of nearly 100 results, meaning all the protein in the two foods is usable by the body.  Finally, it is low in saturated fats and high in fiber. 

The amazing thing about amaranth is how it compares nutritionally to other grains: far more iron, calcium, protein, manganese, and other phytonutrients than wheat or rice. Amaranth is one of the most protein-rich of any plant-based food, rivaling that of animal-based foods like cheese.

Amaranth may have a political advantage over quinoa, another healthy grain that is growing in popularity. Recently, quinoa has drawn some controversy because its price has increased so dramatically that the indigenous populations growing the grain in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru can no longer afford to eat it. Amaranth, on the other hand, is inexpensive, and easily cultivated in a wider variety of conditions. It can survive in arid climates and is grown everywhere from Long Island and Iowa to India and Fiji.

Tzoallis made of amaranth and corn flour, agave honey, and amaranth cereal
Courtesy of Puente a la Salud Comunitaria
As part of that resurgence and from the region of Oaxaca, workshops on making alegrias, a healthy, granola bar-like snack made with popped amaranth seeds, barely bigger than a grain of sand, and few other simple ingredients such as water, honey, raisins, and lime juice are held regularly to help locals better cope with finances and health issues.  Amaranth’s high protein content and low cost make it especially promising for low-income communities that suffer the ‘dual burden’, a tendency to be malnourished at an early age, which then leads to a higher propensity for obesity in adulthood. 

This is part of a movement to rediscover this indigenous plant while restoring health and economy in one of the poorest parts of Mexico, a solution to the high rate of birth defects and childhood malnutrition in rural areas.  The program is helping to incorporate more amaranth into their diet. 

High in protein and other nutrients, amaranth is also drought-resistant and profitable, netting local farmers three to five times the profit of other locally grown grain crops.  A great way to strengthen local economies through sustainable agro-ecological farming of amaranth, which prizes maintaining biodiversity.

Alegrías made in Oaxaca
Courtesy of Puente a la Salud Comunitaria
Puente a la Salud Comunitaria encourages including more amaranth in diets, without the sweeteners, but doesn’t discount the value of alegrías or tzoallis in bringing recognition of the grain to a broader audience. ‘The cultural aspect of alegrías is kind of an entry point.’  But if amaranth is used as a significant part of one’s diet, it should be used in health food, with no added sugar.

This amaranth-based, open-faced tlayuda is typical of Oaxaca.
Amaranth cereal sprinkled on fruit, like watermelon,
is a common way of consuming amaranth in Mexico.
Courtesy of Puente a la Salud Comunitaria
Here’s a list of the possibly ways amaranth can be used.
  • Leaves are nutritionally like spinach but are much superior containing three times the calcium and niacin.  Use as spinach (steamed, sautéed, boiled).  The leaves are commonly used in Caribbean and Asian cooking and can be found in soups, fritters or salads (younger tender leaves).
  • Leaves can be made into delicious agua fresca (fresh watery juices)
  • Leaves as possible fishmeal
  • The stems are used to feed animals
  • The gluten-free flour can be used in breads, tortillas, crepes, wafers, noodles, pancakes, marzipan, cookies and any other flour-based products. 
  • Grains can be used on salads, to cover chicken, in smoothies, on buns, cakes or in granolas.
  • Exceptional thickener for sauces, soups, stews, and even jellies.
  • Can be popped like popcorn (still the most common way to eat in Mexico) or flaked like oatmeal
  • Amaranth oil – very high in unsaturated fats
  • Beer can also be brewed from it – supposedly has a nutty flavor
  • Crystal-shaped granules might be a good replacement for talc power
  • Most intriguing potential as a biological tool to remove lead from soil

Ryan's Brews - Amaranth Belgium Table Ale

Note:  What is often called pigweed in the US is a wild amaranth species native to the US.  Called that because it tends to sprout where hogs are pasture-fed.  Although its leaves and seeds are edible, it has not been cultivated as a food crop.

When we stayed at a B&B in Colima a few years back, we often had amaranth sprinkled on our fruits for breakfast.  It was really yummy.  We knew little of this little life giving gems then.  We are slowly incorporating this local wonder into our diet and love it.

Sources: Center for Alternative Plant, Minnesota Extension Service, University of Minnesota, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, University of Wisconsin, Kate Kilpatrick, Nancy Matsumoto

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