Have you perused the ingredient list on the back of a MySuperFoods’ MySuperSnack Granola Bite pouch and come across that intriguing amaranth flour? While I’m definitely not trying to over-stereotype, I bet I could envision a few puzzled looks and some funny pronunciations – as I recall the first time I ever heard of amaranth several years ago when I was studying nutrition. “Ama-what? Ah-mah-ranth? A-mar-ranth?” It’s actually pronounced: “am-uh-ranth” and it’s packed with insanely nutrient-dense awesomeness, which is why MySuperFoods uses it in their products, of course!
Amaranth actually describes a genus of an herb that has over 60 species, has been around for centuries, originated in South America and Mexico, and interestingly enough, much of the world considers it a weed. Yet that does not stop those who know about its health powers to consume it as a grain, vegetable, and cereal. Amaranth shares many of the same nutritional values as quinoa, so many people have turned to this alternative as another option during meals. Grain amaranth is very palatable and is easy to cook and include in snacks and dishes. Like Swiss Chard, amaranth is grown and consumed as a leafy vegetable in many countries around the world. It is commonly boiled, steamed, or included in soups and stir-frys.
Here are some health facts that you should know about amaranth to understand its greatness and versatility:
Rich in Vitamins – Amaranth is full of essential vitamins, specifically a good source of vitamin A, C, E, K, B5, B6, folate, niacin, and riboflavin. These act as antioxidants, raise energy, control hormones, and much more.
Hefty on Minerals – Amaranth includes numerous minerals such as calcium, iron, copper, magnesium, and especially manganese. It is also a good source of zinc, potassium, and phosphorus. These build strong bones and muscles, aid hydration, boost energy, and are vital in thousands of processes. When comparing the mineral content of calcium, iron, and magnesium in common foods, amaranth is much more like Swiss chard than wheat. It contains about four times as much calcium as wheat and twice as much iron and magnesium. That’s quite the difference!
Protein Powerhouse – Amaranth contains large amounts of complete protein (meaning that it contains a complete set of amino acids, therefore you do not need to consume different sources of proteins to obtain the recommended daily value), and weighs-in at up to 30% more protein than wheat flour, rice and oats. Notably, amaranth’s rich protein content is also very bioavailable and more digestible than other grains (it has been compared to the digestibility of milk protein). According to Plant Foods for Human Nutrition, “The Institute of Nutrition of Central America and Panama in Guatemala conducted a comparative study between the protein in amaranth and cheese protein. Researchers concluded that the protein in amaranth is among the most nutritious vegetable-based protein and can be considered on-par with protein from animal-based products.”
Naturally Gluten Free – amaranth lacks gluten, which is a problematic protein contained in many true grains.
Full of Fiber – Amaranth is a high fiber food, making it filling and aiding to one’s digestive health, cholesterol, and blood pressure. An added bonus is that it slows the absorption of sugars to let the body keep up with energy production. Cooked amaranth is 90% digestible.
Amino Acids and Lysine – as mentioned earlier, amaranth contain essential amino acids, including lysine, which vegetables and grains tend to lack. Most cereal grains, like wheat, are relatively low in this amino acid. Alternatively, amaranth is relatively rich in this amino acid, containing approximately twice as much lysine as wheat on an ounce-for-ounce basis. Lysine is of interest because it has clinically shown potential for cancer treatment and helps the body absorb calcium, build muscle, and produce energy.
Boost Immunity – Due to the potent array of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, amaranth may boost immune function according to some studies.
Fight Inflammation – The anti-inflammatory properties in the peptides (short chains of amino acids, which ultimately make up proteins) and oils of amaranth can ease pain and reduce inflammation. This is especially important for chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and stroke, where inflammation erodes at health on a daily basis.
Cancer and Disease Prevention – The same peptides in amaranth that protect against inflammation may also help prevent cancer. The antioxidants in this grain may also help protect cells from damage that can lead to cancer.
According to the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, molecular biologists in Mexico set out to study the properties of amaranth and in 2008, were the first to report presence of a special peptide that closely mirrored one that has been previously identified in soybeans and is widely thought to have cancer-preventive benefits as well as possibly blocking inflammation.
Heart Health and Cholesterol Control – The oils and phytosterols in amaranth have been shown to help prevent and treat those with hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Regular consumption of amaranth can reduce cholesterol levels, including LDL (bad cholesterol) and triglycerides, and lower blood pressure. The fiber and phytonutrients in amaranth lower blood pressure according to some recent studies. According to the journal Lipids in Health and Disease, “Russian researchers used a 1996 study conducted on chickens as a model to determine whether or not amaranth would also show benefits for patients with cardiovascular disease (CVD). Patients who presented with coronary heart disease and hypertension not only showed benefits from the inclusion of amaranth in their diets, researchers also saw a decrease in the amounts of total cholesterol, triglycerides, and LDL significantly.”
Grey Hair Prevention – as odd as it may sound, some research has even shown that grain amaranth shows promise in prevention of premature greying of the hair, suspecting that the high mineral content has a role in this.
A Word of Caution With Leaves of Amaranth – Amaranth’s (not the grain) moderately high content of oxalic acid inhibits much of the absorption of calcium and zinc. It should be avoided or eaten in moderation by those with gout, kidney disorders or rheumatoid arthritis. Reheating cooked amaranth leaves is not recommended, particularly for consumption by young children, because the nitrates in the leaves can be converted to nitrites, as in spinach.
Uses for Amaranth:
- Grain amaranth can be simmered like other grains and has a porridge-like texture. It can be combined with other grains if you desire a more “rice-like” dish.
- Grain amaranth can also be popped in a skillet like popcorn, which gives it a nutty flavor and crunchy texture.
- You can easily make amaranth flour by taking dry amaranth grain and running it through a Vitamix blender or a nut/seed blender until you have a fine powder/flour that you can use in many recipes for a healthy, gluten-free alternative to wheat flours.
- I normally eat grain amaranth at breakfast, where I make a hot cereal out of it. I buy amaranth grain in bulk and it’s inexpensive and easy to store in glass jars.
- I rinse my amaranth off first before cooking.
- In a stovetop pot, I combine about 1 cup of amaranth grain to about 3 ½ cups of water and bring to a boil. You can cover it and let simmer until it thickens up; stir frequently. This will make enough for left-overs for yourself or for about 2-3 people.
- I like to add chopped walnuts or pecans to my amaranth with some raisins or dates and even a little cinnamon. It’s delicious and will hold you over for awhile.
Here is a great summary on how to cook amaranth by the Whole Grains Council:
“Cooking amaranth is very easy – measure grains and water, boil water, add grains, gently boil with the occasional stir for 15-20 minutes, then drain, rinse, and enjoy! Yes, it’s really that simple.
Cooked amaranth behaves a little differently than other whole grains. It never loses its crunch completely, but rather softens on the inside while maintaining enough outer integrity so that the grains seem to pop between your teeth. In fact, the sensation of chewing a spoonful of cooked amaranth grains has been compared to eating a spoonful of caviar (without the salty fishiness, of course).
None of our culinary experts reported any success when trying to prepare amaranth for a pilaf, but the cooked grains can be spread on a plate or other flat surface to dry a bit, then sprinkled on salads, added to cookie batters, or stirred into soups.
In fact, there’s only one real rule to follow when cooking up a batch of plain amaranth – don’t skimp on the water! We suggest at least 6 cups of water for every one cup of amaranth, not because the little grains will absorb that much liquid, but because of what happens to the water that’s left. Our experiments with the average amount of liquid (about 2 cups) left us with about two inches of excess water that was goopy and viscous, in part due to starch being released by amaranth as it cooks. The grains hadn’t gone bad or anything, and they were fine after a brief rinse in a fine-mesh strainer, but it was a bit of a surprise.”
Here are some more recipes:
- Toasted grain pilaf – http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/RCP02112/Toasted-Grain-Pilaf.html
- Popped Amaranth Crunch – http://wholegrainscouncil.org/recipes/snacks-desserts/popped-amaranth-crunch
- Amaranth Polenta with Wild Mushrooms – http://wholegrainscouncil.org/recipes/salads-sides/amaranth-polenta-with-wild-mushrooms
- Blueberry Amaranth Porridge – http://wholegrainscouncil.org/recipes/main-dishes/blueberry-amaranth-porridge
- Creamy Cannellini Bean and Amaranth Soup – http://wholegrainscouncil.org/recipes/soups-starters/creamy-cannellini-bean-and-amaranth-soup
- Amaranth Walnut Banana Bread – http://wholegrainscouncil.org/recipes/breads/amaranth-banana-walnut-bread
- Amaranth-Ginger Muffins – http://wholegrainscouncil.org/recipes/snacks-desserts/amaranth-ginger-muffins
- Check out these sites for other recipes:
US Department of Agriculture, Whole Grains Council, and World’s Healthiest Foods.
Megan Monday articles are written by Megan Kalocinski, a Certified Holistic Health and Nutrition Coach and Owner/Founder of Empower Health & Nutrition Coaching of Exponential Health and Wellness, LLC: http://www.exponentialhealthandwellness.us