Amaranth: A staple of the past and a crop for the future
From being offered to the Gods by ancient civilisations to being touted as a future crop that can ease food insecurity and diversify food systems, amaranth is a dark horse in the world of grains. Here are some of the secrets behind the plant that captured the attention of ancient communities and modern researchers.
A Rich History
Cultivated mainly in Asia and the Americas, amaranth refers to annual or perennial plant species from the Amaranthus family. Amaranth has always been celebrated for its versatility; from its grains and leaves to its tender stems, all parts of the plant have been used as either food, medicine or purely ornamental purposes.1 Amaranth was a symbol of immorality in many ancient cultures; in ancient Greece, spreading amaranth flowers over the graves of the dead was believed to impart immortality.2
Likewise, amaranth is also regarded as a divine food by the Aztecs, who created sculptures of their Gods with a mixture of amaranth and honey (and sometimes, even human blood). These sculptures were later broken into pieces to be eaten by worshippers. When the Spaniards conquered the Aztec Empire in 1521 CE, they banned the cultivation and consumption of amaranth, considering Indigenous Americans’ worship of amaranth a threat to Christianity.2,3 Fortunately, amaranth seeds survived in small communities in the Andes and Americas, where it continued to be cultivated until today.
The significance of the crop to Indigenous culture, along with its weather resilience and palatability led to a renewed interest in amaranth in the 1970s, motivating Mexican farmers to recover amaranth from wild varieties. This coincided with the US interest in researching underdeveloped and resilient crops that can expand the global food base. The crop swelled in popularity after it was spotlighted by the US National Academy of Science as a crop with ‘high value and agronomic potential’ in 1975.6 The amaranth renaissance also ignited conferences and research projects dedicated to understanding its biology, cultivation methods and nutrition.7
In Latin America, plant fronds are often used to stir amaranth grains as they are toasted.
A Climate Resilient Crop
Amaranth’s resilience to different climate conditions is one of the key reasons for its recent revival in modern agriculture. Recent studies have confirmed this ancient knowledge, acknowledging the crop’s unique ability to thrive in both hilly terrains and open plains, as well as its high tolerance to droughts, high salinity soils and frost.5 This makes it a uniquely adaptable crop for combatting the effects of increasing seasonal uncertainty, unlike many others that require specific conditions to thrive.
Amaranth also uses C4 photosynthesis*, a system that allows plants to have a higher photosynthetic rate and to thrive even in nitrogen poor soil. According to Dr. Rob Myers from the University of Missouri in the US, irrigation is seldom needed unless growing in the most moisture deficient areas. The crop also activates a water saving mechanism when under moisture stress, drooping or wilting to stop transpiring water. This makes it more resilient compared to crops such as corn, whose leaves will curl up and brown under moisture stress.8,9
Additionally, amaranth can adapt to a variety of geographical elevations, making it a popular rotational crop** option for farmers from different regions.
Rows of amaranth plants growing for cultivation.
A Nutritional Powerhouse
In addition to its climate resilience, amaranth boasts an impressive nutritional profile. Compared to conventional cereal crops such as wheat and corn, amaranth is higher in protein content and comes complete with all nine essential amino acids. The grain is also high in fibre and iron, while low in saturated fats.5,9 Its nature as a nutritional powerhouse may be the reason why Aztecs believe it gave them ‘supernatural powers’.
On top of its nutrient density and adaptability, amaranth’s high yielding ability and short production cycles also make it a potential solution to address food insecurity in poorer growing regions.3
A Versatile Staple
Unlike many single use grains today, amaranth is also highly versatile in its uses and all parts of the plant can be eaten. The grain of amaranth can be eaten whole or milled into flour for baking. In Mexico, amaranth grains are toasted, then combined with honey, molasses and chocolate to create Alegria, a candy which literally translates to ‘joy’ in Spanish.2,3
In some cultures, amaranth is more commonly used as a leafy vegetable, or ground into a paste for sauces and stews. In Nigeria, many enjoy supplementing their pounded yam dish (i.e. àmàlà isu) with amaranth, while Chinese cuisine often uses amaranth (xiàncài) as a standalone steamed or fried vegetable dish. The amaranth leaves are used in the Greek dish Vlita, where it is boiled and served with olive oil and lemon.2
Alegria: A sweet Mexican snack made of toasted amaranth grains, honey, molasses, and chocolate.
Will it ever be popular?
While some researchers believe it has the potential to be the next ‘quinoa’, others are more doubtful. Kelly Toups, The *Whole Grains Council’s Program Director observed that, while “Quinoa’s texture and size makes it an easy alternative to rice, amaranth is a smaller, creamier grain”, which could mean it is less adaptable as a grain.4 Dr. Rob Myers believes amaranth’s slower uptake might be due to the grain’s darker colour, observing that humans have always tended to select lighter coloured grains. He explains that this preference could be because lighter grains make it easier to spot bad seeds and other impurities.11
* The Whole Grains Council is a US based nonprofit organisation and consumer advocacy group which works to increase the consumption of whole grains for better health. The group is sponsored by American food companies including Subway and Quaker]
The upscaling of amaranth cultivation is also an obstacle to overcome. Challenges to its widespread adoption include the limited availability of amaranth seeds and knowledge of the best agronomic practices to cultivate it. The minimal consumer awareness of its nutritional benefits is another barrier to its commercialisation; currently, amaranth is still often relegated to health food specialty stores.3
Do you think amaranth could provide a solution to food insecurity? Let us know in the comments!
- C4 Photosynthesis: C4 photosynthetic plants are able to concentrate CO2 in the bundle sheath (a plant’s photosynthetic cells), enabling more efficient photosynthesis in warm climates. There are three types of photosynthetic systems, namely C3, C4 and CAM photosynthesis.
- Rotational Crop: Crop rotation is the practice of cycling through different crops for a period of time to improve soil health and optimise soil nutrients.
- Essential Amino Acids: Essential amino acids cannot be made by the body. As a result, they must come from food.The 9 essential amino acids are: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.