These days, most people are aware that when it comes to carbohydrates, it’s healthiest to stick with whole-grains.
Some foods that typically dominate the discussion on whole-grains are Brown Rice, (whole) Oats, and Quinoa.
Rarely, however, does Amaranth come up, even though it’s by far one most nutritious.
Compared to say, Brown Rice, Amaranth has:
- way more protein
- a better fiber-to-carb ratio
- an impressive array of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients
When it comes to nutritional value, Amaranth really is in a league of it’s own!
So, why then is it not as popular as all those other trendy grains you see lining the shelves at Whole Foods? Well, perhaps that has something to do with the fact that Amaranth isn’t actually a grain at all!
What Is Amaranth?
Like Quinoa (the trendiest food ever to be called a “grain”), Amaranth is commonly labeled as a whole grain but it’s really a seed.
Technically, the term Amaranth really refers to any plant within the genus, Amaranthus.
While there are around 75 distinct species of known plants in the Amaranthus genus, the Amaranth you eat typically comes from a handful of them. The 5 most common species cultivates for edible Amaranth are:
- Amaranthus paniculatus
- Amaranthus hypochondriacus
- Amaranthus caudatus
- Amaranthus cruentis
- Amaranthus tricolor
Although these species are distinct in many ways, one thing they share in common is the colorful flowers which have a very grain-like appearance.
When you compare it to a traditional Wheat, it’s easy to see why people call Amaranth a grain. It looks just like What except much prettier!
One Amaranth plant can yield thousands upon thousands of little Amaranth seeds. Although the the entire plant has a variety of different potential uses, the seeds are what we eat. They’re the “grain” part of the plant.
History Of Use
The use of Amaranth as a food source dates back several thousand years. Referred to as “huauhtli” by the Aztecs, Amaranth was used both as major food source and for ceremonial purposes throughout Central and South America.
It’s estimated that Amaranth accounted for at least 50% of the total grain harvested by the Aztecs. Early on, they realized it’s value. It was considered just as essential to the average Aztec diet as Corn. That is, until the Spanish showed up…
When the Spanish conquistadors came to take over the Americas, one of their primary goals was to impose their religious (Christian) beliefs on the native people.
This meant banning and/or destroying any kind of plant that was used in traditional Aztec religious ceremonies.
Sadly, Amaranth was one of these plants.
The conquistadors viewed it as representative of the polytheistic beliefs they were trying to eradicate. It’s safe to say that the Spanish weren’t concerned with nutritious grains. They just wanted gold.
With the demise of the Aztec empire came a sharp drop in the cultivation of Amaranth, even as a food source.
The first opportunity for a major comeback didn’t happen until the late 1970’s, when a research paper was published in Speaking Of Science which praised Amaranth as “the crop of the future”.
The paper described Amaranths history of use by the Aztecs and emphasized it’s superior nutritional value, relative to other “grain-like” crops.
This was way back when people actually read things, so this paper actually attracted a decent amount of attention. It put Amaranth back on the map as a nutritious grain, but almost half a century later, we’re still discovering its true value.
What Are The Health Benefits Of Amaranth?
In terms of the nutritional benefits, Amaranth surpasses every other “grain” by a long-shot. Here’s the nutrition data for 1 cup of raw Amaranth:
Amaranth Nutrition Facts & Highlights
High IN Protein
High Fiber/LOW SUGAR
High In Vitamin A and C
good source of calcium
So, right off the bat we can see that Amaranth is quite nutritious, but let’s dive a little deeper…
Amaranth Is A HigH QUALITY Protein SOURCE
Compared to other carbohydrates, Amaranth has a lot more protein. To put it in perspective…
The benefits of a high-protein diet don’t need to be debated. Research has clearly proven that a high protein diet is ideal for:
Amaranth makes for a valuable addition to your arsenal of high-protein foods. Such a high protein content in a grain is especially valuable for vegetarians and vegans who may be at a disadvantage when it comes to getting enough protein.
Amaranth Amino Acid Make-Up
Contrary to what you’ll read on the internet, Amaranth isn’t an especially good source of Lysine. Due to Lysine being beneficial for things like eye health, immune support, and healing, sellers of Amaranth-based products love to talk up the “high Lysine content”.
In reality, the Lysine content is nothing special. There’s definitely a solid amount of Lysine in there, but the same can be said for plenty of other foods as well.
What makes Amaranth so special is the broad spectrum of amino acids, not one amino acid in particular.
Now, if you’ve been googling around for info on Amaranth, you’ve probably read that it’s a “complete protein because it contains all 10 of the Essential Amino Acids”. A lot of people think this is true.
The term Essential Amino Acid refers to any Amino Acid that your body cannot produce itself and therefore must obtain through diet. The term Complete Protein refers to any food that contains all the Essential Amino Acids
The 10 Essential Amino Acids Are:
If you take a look at the graph showing the Amino Acid distribution of Amaranth, you can see that it’s missing 2 of the Essential Amino Acids.
Well, actually Phenylalanine has been detected in certain species of Amaranth, so really it just lacks Tryptophan.
For this reason, it cannot TRULY be considered a complete protein, but it is without a doubt one of the most complete plant-based protein sources.
IS TrYPTOPHAN important?
Yes, Tryptophan is pretty important actually…
Aside from helping to construct whole proteins, it has another VERY important function. The brain uses certain amino acids to produce neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) that dictate how you feel, act, and function.
Tryptophan is used to make Serotonin, often considered “the happy neurotransmitter” because of it’s role in mood. It’s also heavily involved in sleep, appetite, sexual function, and various other physiological processes.
So yeah, you definitely do not want to run low on Serotonin by neglecting your Tryptophan intake. Fortunately, you can get plenty of Tryptophan from other foods, some animal-based and some plant-based.
The issue of Amaranth lacking Tryptophan can be easily remedied by also eating some other food which does contain Tryptophan.
The human body is perfectly capable of forming complete proteins from different foods with different amino acid profiles, provided the combination provides all Essential Amino Acids.
Amaranth Is High In Fiber
Another reason Amaranth is so healthy is the amount of fiber it contains. Fiber is the portion of foods (plant-based) that your body can’t digest.
Unlike fat, protein, and carbohydrates, fiber passes through your digestive tract in tact and is a major contributor to regular (healthy) bowel movements.
The benefits of a high-fiber diet are well-established. Getting enough fiber can:
Just as the protein content of Amaranth is far superior to anything else, it also contains more Fiber than many traditional grains.
Let’s use the same example of Brown Rice from earlier…
What’s more important than the total amount of Fiber, however, is the ratio of Fiber to Carbohydrates.
Obviously, if getting tons of Fiber was the goal, you could just eat buckets of Fried Chicken and Ice Cream sprinkled with Fiber and be fine.
Sadly, that’s not the case…
The benefits of a high-fiber diet aren’t really due to “high-fiber”. They’re due to the amount of fiber being relatively high compared to the amount of total carbs.
That’s why you see Fiber listed under “Total Carbohydrates” on nutrition facts labels.
Amaranth is special because it contains a much higher percentage of Fiber relative to Total Carbohydrate than just about anything else you would consider a grain.
If you’re trying to increase your fiber intake for the health benefits, Amaranth can help!
Amaranth Is Rich In Vitamins, Minerals, and PhytoNutrients
Most of the foods we consider “grains” are marginal in terms of their micronutrient value. Sure, whole grains are the preferred form of carbohydrates (because they’re high in fiber), but Amaranth takes it a step further with an impressive micronutrient profile.
Some of the key micronutrient features of Amaranth are:
- High Levels of Vitamin A, B Vitamins, and Vitamin C
- Minerals Like Iron, Manganese, Magnesium, and Phosphorus
- Phytonutrients (Phytosterols, Tannins, Quercetin, Gallic Acid, etc.)
Most whole-grains are decent sources of B Vitamins and various minerals, but you won’t find any Phytosterols in Brown Rice or Oats.
Oh Yeah, Amaranth Is Naturally Gluten Free!
The term Gluten refers to a group of naturally occurring proteins in various grains such as Wheat, Oats, and Barley. It doesn’t really have a clear purpose other than maintaining the shape of the foods that it’s in.
When we talk about Gluten, it’s usually in the context of Celiac disease.
Celiac Disease is a digestive health conditioned characterized by Gluten consumption damaging the lining of the intestinal tract in such a way that can potentially prevent the absorption of important nutrients.
This can in turn lead to the development of conditions like Anemia (lack of Iron absorption) and and Osteoporosis (lack of Calcium absorption).
People with Celiac Disease are Gluten-intolerance, so they may react to Gluten consumption by becoming ill (and maybe throwing up whatever they ate).
If you get sick when you eat Wheat, it could very well be your body trying to tell you to stop eating Gluten because you may have Celiac disease.
Somehow, over the years, the idea that Gluten-free foods are “healthier” has spread.
There are a ton of people these days who don’t have Celiac’s Disease or any sort of digestive health issues but choose to adhere to a Gluten-free diet because they believe it’s better for you.
Despite the somewhat widespread belief that Gluten-free diets are healthier than diets containing Gluten, the research is clear…
If you don’t have Celiac disease, Gluten is neither good nor bad.
Still, estimates place the amount of people with Celiac disease at 1 in 133 people, or around 1% of all Americans. The scary thing is that the vast majority (estimated at 97%) of them are unaware.
Needless to say, the market for Gluten-free products has exploded over the past decade or so, not because the amount of people with Celiac disease is going up at any kind of noticeable rate, but because of the false notion that:
Gluten Free = Healthy.
Even though that’s a load of nonsense, it’s actually a good thing that so many people believe it because it has drastically increased the amount of Gluten-free products on the shelves.
High-end grocery chains like Whole Foods have been pushing Gluten-free foods for years now, but these days you’ll find a Gluten Free aisle in just about every kind of grocery store
Even Wal-Mart jumped on the bandwagon and bolstered up their Gluten-free offerings!
Needless to say, the move away from Gluten has created opportunity for foods that are naturally Gluten free foods like Quinoa, Buckwheat, and of course…Amaranth!
Is There any research on Amaranth specifically?
Actually, there is…
A recent study found that Amaranth extract (single dose of 2 grams) actually increased Nitrate levels. Increased Nitrate levels, usually through foods like Spinach and Beet Juice, is associated with better exercise performance.
Granted, this was a concentrated extract, not just a bunch of Amaranth seeds, but it does tell us something about it’s unique nutrient profile.
No other “grains” have been shown to increase Nitrates like that. That’s a quality that tends to be specific to vegetables.
A 2014 study published in the Journal Of Food Science And Technology found that a combination of Amaranth and Moringa Oleifera actually reduced fasting blood glucose levels in women.
Unfortunately, there haven’t been any studies regarding the impact of Amaranth alone on blood sugar levels, so we don’t know how much of it was because of the other plant used in the study.
Still, it make sense that much of the benefit would be due to Amaranth.
There is also some evidence of anti-cancer benefits, but more study is needed in that area before drawing and kind of solid conclusions.
Cooking amaranth with nutritional value in mind
Of course, the raw nutrition facts for any “super-food” make it look a lot better than it actually is after you cook it, and Amaranth is no exception. Also, the type of seeds play an important role in the real nutritional value.
For example, black seeds contain about double the Fiber of the lighter-colored seeds. On the other hand, the protein digestibility of the lighter-colored seeds is better than that of the black seeds and isn’t diminished by processing.
So, even though the black seeds may appear more nutritious in their raw form, practically speaking, it looks like the lighter-colored seeds are the better way to go. They still have a pretty high amount of Fiber and the Protein is absorbed better.
HOw To prepare amaranth
If you just want to prepare ordinary (cooked) Armaranth, it’s pretty similar to the way you would cook Oatmeal or some other grain….
- Start With Roughly 3 Cups Of Boiling Water
- 1 Cup Armaranth Seeds
- Reduce Heat, Let Simmer For 20 Minutes.
- Flavor It However You Want!
If you want to make it fluffier, add slightly more water and cook on lower heat for longer.
Stirring consistently really helps with making sure the final product is fluffy.
In fact, the realy key to making nice, fluffy, east-to-eat Armaranth is stirring it constantly throughout the cooking proces
That may, each individual seed (grain) is exposed to as much water as possible. When done right, these dense little seeds with puff right up and become perfectly edible.
Of course, you can also just pop it…
- Preheat A Pot Or Skillet On (Very) High Heat
- Add 1 Or 2 Tablespoons Of Armaranth Seeds At A Time
- Stir Consistently, Otherwise They’ll Burn
In the end, assuming you’ve done alright, you’ll end up with something like popcorn but way better.
Of course, it takes a few attempts to get the popping thing right, so unless you really like a challenge, it may be best to just cook them in a pot with water.
The Bottom Line
When it comes to healthy grains, nothing beats Amaranth.
The comprehensive macronutrient profile alone is enough to justify adding it to your diet, but Amaranth comes with an impressive array of potential health benefits as well!
So next time you’re in the whole grain aisle reaching for that brown rice, see if they have some Amaranth instead…