Grain amaranths are very diverse and represent many different plant species. There are over 50 species in the Amaranthus genus, with several of them being weeds in the continental U.S., a few being ornamentals, and some having potential for animal forage. Amaranthus hypochondriacus is the type most grown in the U.S.
Grain amaranths can vary in height from 2 to 8 feet tall, and can vary in flower, leaf, and stem color. Maroon or crimson coloring is the most common. Some varieties have green flowers, and some are more golden.
Cultivated by the Aztecs 8,000 years ago and still considered a native crop in Peru, the ancient history of amaranth can be traced to Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula. Amaranth is thought to have represented up to 80% of Aztec energy consumption before the Spanish conquest.
The Aztec month of Panquetzaliztli (around December) was dedicated to “Huitzilopochtli”. which means “hummingbird of the left side” or “left-handed hummingbird” (hummingbirds feed on amaranth flowers… Why the left hand side is a mystery). This was one of the more important Aztec festivals, and the people prepared for the whole month. A statue of the god was made out of amaranth seeds and honey, and at the end of the month, it was cut into small pieces so everybody could eat a little piece of the god.
After the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in Mexico in the early 1500’s, amaranth almost disappeared in the Americas as a crop until research began on it in the U.S. in the 1970s. It was recovered in Mexico from wild varieties and is now commercially cultivated. In the past two decades, amaranth has begun to be grown by a much larger number of farmers around the world. Today, it is grown in Africa, India, China, Russia, throughout eastern Europe and emerging once again in both north and south America.
Although the crop is used exclusively for seed production in the U.S., in other regions of the world there are many other uses. In Africa and the Caribbean, amaranth is commonly eaten as a pot herb, with individual leaves picked off the plants periodically. Farmers in China are reportedly growing over 100,000 acres of amaranth as forage for hogs. Many amaranths have become popular ornamental plants. Thomas Jefferson is believed to have planted them along his garden paths at Monticello.
The flowers of the ‘Hopi Red Dye’ amaranth were used by the Hopi (a tribe in the western United States) as the source of a deep red dye. These anthocyanin (reddish) pigments in amaranth flours appear to have great potential for competing with sugar beets as a source of natural, non-toxic red dyes.
As befits its weedy life history, amaranth grows rapidly, and their large seed heads can weigh up to 1 kg and contain a half-million small seeds! It is a crop that can adapt to many different soil types, but will do best on fertile, well drained soils. Despite its small seed, amaranth can be harvested with conventional grain crop equipment, with some modifications.
While amaranth is regarded to be drought tolerant, the mechanism of its drought tolerance is not well understood. One trait that helps it in extremely dry conditions is an ability to wilt temporarily, then bounce back after a rainfall occurs.
And, amaranth is the only grain with documented vitamin C content.
Amaranth contains 6 to 10% oil, predominantly unsaturated, or around 77% unsaturated fatty acids, including linoleic acid, required for optimum nutrition.
Researchers suggests the rutin, nicotiflorin, and peptides in amaranth health benefits in lowering incidences of chronic diseases, such as: inflammation, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, hypertension and incidences of cancer. Research also suggests that amaranth oil could be used in preventing and treating cardiovascular diseases.
An interesting note: Squalene (making up about 5% of the total fatty acids in amaranth) is extracted as a vegetable-based alternative to expensive shark oil for use in dietary supplements and cosmetics. Whether squalene can be economically extracted has yet to be determined.
For the kitchen, amaranth can be used as an exceptional thickener for sauces, soups, stews, and even jellies. Being extremely dense, amaranth is too heavy to be used by itself. It’s best used with other grains for a lighter texture, and with a proven combination of ingredients like agar agar or tapioca flour to impersonate gluten. Cooking amaranth is comparable to cooking pasta or rice. Eaten as a snack, amaranth can have a light, nutty, or peppery-crunchy texture and flavor.
In Mexico, a type of bonbon called “Dulce de Alegria” (or “sweet delight” in english) is made from popped amaranth mixed with sugar or honey. They’re formed into little skull-like confections and distributed during the Mexican “Día de Muertos” (“Day of the Dead”) celebrations.
In Greece, green amaranth is a popular dish called “Vleeta”. It is boiled, then served with olive oil and lemon juice like a salad, sometimes alongside fried fish.