Amaranth comes in a variety of colors; purple, orange, red and gold

Amaranth plants are a traditionally popular source of nutrition and aesthetic beauty. While this plant has been harvested throughout history, it is rising in popularity as a nutritional food source. This new crop has been met with good success throughout many populations. Amaranths were an important staple for many indigenous people, before European settlers arrived. The crop was held, for example, to a high standard by the Aztecs. Consumption of the amranth plant is on the increase as it finds its way into more and more recipes. There are approximately 70 species that exist around the world, and with each plant capable of producing tens of thousands of nutritious seeds, amaranth has been increasingly cultivated.

Celebrated especially in Central and South America, amaranth is actually found all over the world. Due to its vibrant, long lasting color the name amaranth actually comes from the Greek meaning "never fading flower" or "one that does not whither". The ornamental value of the plant is just as high as the nutritional value, often used in bouquets or other manners of decoration, the colored flowers are just as sought after as the seeds and leaves.

Amaranth can grow in a variety of environments, like the beach, for example.

Genus Amaranthus

Genus Amaranthus contains about 70 different species of the amaranth plant. Part of the family Amaranthacaea, Amaranthus contains species that are used ornamentally, for cooking or not used at all. Species with names such as "Love-lies-bleeding" and "Joseph's Coat" are used ornamentally, for example. Amaranth plants, particularly in cultivation, vary in size and stature, but are often a bushy plant that grows five to seven feet tall. This, however, depends on the species as certain species have adapted differently to the different environments they thrive in. Seed heads sit atop long leafy stalks. Amaranth is closely related to other leafy, nutritious plants such as spinach, quinoa and even beets. The plant also actually belongs in the same order, Caryophyllales, as other plants like cacti and carnations.

amaranth7.pngGeographic Distribution

Amaranth can be found in a variety of different environments all over the globe. The plant actually grows similar to a weed in terms of the speed and conditions that it can be grown under. It resists heat and drought, is not susceptible to disease and can be grown as easily scratching the soil, throwing down the seeds and watering. Amaranth's ability to resist drought is a result of a trait that is not yet fully understood. If faced with harsh conditions, the plant is able to wilt temporarily until the next rainfall and bounce back.

Today, entire farms and fields are devoted to the growth of amaranth. The Amaranth Insitute is devoted to the production and distribution of the amaranth plant throughout the US and world. Although it is highly popular in Central and South America, it is also grown in the US,particularly in the midwest and west. Three states in particular, Colorado, Illinois and Nebraska, are responsible for much of the amaranth growing. These three states all have seemingly favorable climates for a plant like amaranth to grow; temperate climates that see warm summers and cool winters and are also not too dry nor too wet. Abroad, the plant has also been found in Europe and Asia--in China, for example, it is reported that tens of thousands of acres are grown as a healthy alternative to animal feed.

Purple amaranths with gold amaranth in the background.

Use of Amaranth

The Spanish Conquest of 1519 actually hurt the popularity of amaranths. They were harvested for their flowers and their seeds, which when mixed with human blood or honey, would be shaped into figurines by the Aztecs for religious purposes and often eaten. These figurines became sacrificial idols for this culture. The Spanish saw this tradition as pagan and banned the cultivation and eating of amaranth. Luckily, amaranth continued to be grown, albeit at a much lower rate than it once was which helped the plant to avoid extinction. Amaranth's popularity in our own diets is also on the increase--it is technically a nongrass grain, which makes it different than the other "cereals" like maize, wheat and rice. A variety of other uses for amaranth exist. In the Cusco area of South America, for example, amaranth flowers are used to treat toothaches and fevers. The color from the flowers is often used as a food colorant for other food. Within these colored flowers are seeds of different colors, depending on the color of the flowers. The seeds contain majority of the nutrients that exist in the amaranth plant and have been increasingly used as a food staple. New varieties of amaranths are being bioengineered and domesticated for consumption and functional use. This will give growers the ability to combine the healthiest and strongest traits of different species of amaranth, potentially into one specie. As history continued, the seeds of amaranth attracted attention of growers and breeders and three in particular have been targeted since the late 1970's-- A. cruentus (ornamental, similar to what is pictured above), A. hypochondriacus and A. caudatus

Amaranth in Cooking

Amaranths seeds are actually indigestible, they must be cooked in order to be digested due to a tough seed coat. However, heating the seeds can pop them-- in a way that is very similar to popcorn popping. The seeds can also be milled down and turned into flour, which then can be turned into bread, pasta etc. Amaranth as part of the diet has traditonally been very popular in Central and South America. In Mexico, amaranth seeds would be popped and mixed with sugar to make a sweet snack called alegria. The entire plant would and could be used in cooking. The leaves are similar to spinach leaves and can be roasted or boiled down. Peruvians used to ferment amaranth seed in order to make beer. Finally, in Ecuador, the flowers are boiled down and rum is added to create a drink that is supposed to "cleanse the blood". More basic uses, though, have emerged for amaranth seeds. Often they will be infused into cooking flour or incorporated into other dishes.

Amaranth is a very nutritional addition to the diet. With a protein content nearing about 18%, that figure is higher to many comparable grains and cereals like wheat which is only 17% and barley which is only 13%. In order for proteins to be constructed, essentail amino acids must be combined to build the proteins. Amaranth is an excellent source of the amino acids lysine, methionine and threonine. The grain also contains high levels of potassium, calcium, zinc and vitamin E, making it one of the healthiest alternatives to something like wheat. Amaranth has about three times as much fiber as wheat, five times as much iron and is gluten free. Low in fat and cholesterol it is no wonder that the cultivation of amaranth continued, although nearly wiped out. Amaranths are also a good source of squalene oil--a natural antioxidant good for heart health. Squalene oil is used to synthesize hormones, vitamin D and have a positive effect on cholesterol level.

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