A symbol of Aztec power and a staple in the modern kitchen, find out why this naturally gluten-free grain has been cultivated for at least 8000 years, and why it's so good for you.October 26, 2020 2:30 pm
The origins of an ancient grain
Huitzilopochtli, one of the most important festivals of the pre-conquest Aztec world, saw people decorating their homes and trees with strings of brightly coloured paper flags. They paraded in ceremonial dress, singing and dancing their way through the streets of Tenochtitlan and Cholula.
The brilliant red plaster of colossal stepped temples stretched defiantly into the sky; a symbol of Aztec power. Rows of flag-covered houses flapped in unison. The people chanted prayers, dancing rhythmically and thumping their drums, the emperor standing at centre stage, adorned with a ruffle of Quetzal feathers.
For the people of Mesoamerica, the gods were not separated from nature. Rather, the characteristics of nature were interpreted into the personalities of different gods. In turn, the influence of the gods could be seen in the natural world.
Amaranth is a perfect example of this exchange between the natural and the divine. This tall plant, with its broad, green leaves, was so important that during Huitzilopochtli, the community used its seeds to build a divine statue.
So, while this powerful grain might be new to Western kitchens, it has been revered since ancient times in other parts of the world. And, indeed, it still is. Celebrations for the Mexican Día de los Muertos still feature skulls decorated with amaranth seeds.
What is amaranth?
Amaranth is a pesudocereal. This simply means that it is a seed which acts like a grain. While that might sound unusual, some of your other pantry staples fall into this category, too. Buckwheat and quinoa are both pseudocereals, although we often think of them as grains.
A food becomes a pseudocereal by virtue of how we eat it. And, since amaranth has been eaten much like any other grain for thousands of years, it happily sits within the pseudocereal family.
Amaranth grain is smaller than other ‘grains’ such as quinoa, and looks quite seed-like. It has a pleasant, nutty flavour, and it’s also very versatile. You can eat amaranth grain in place of rice, bulgar or quinoa alongside a hot savoury meal. When cooked with liquid it has a thickening effect similar to that of oats.
However, amaranth also works very well with sweet flavours. It can be ground into a brilliant gluten-free flour and used in baking. Its nutty flavour works brilliantly in cakes and cookies.
Another popular way of eating amaranth is to pop or puff the seeds. This is just like making popcorn from corn kernels, and it gives the amaranth a lovely crunchy, fluffy texture. Puffed amaranth is a great way of topping sweet and savoury dishes, or mixing into cookies for a bit of added crunch.
So, now you know how easy it is to use amaranth, let’s look at its benefits.
"Not only is amaranth extremely high in fibre, it’s also the leading natural plant-based source for squalene."
Amaranth is naturally gluten-free.
Whether you have celiac disease or are just sensitive to gluten, amaranth has got you covered. Unlike some other cereals, it’s naturally completely free of gluten.
You can treat this versatile pseudograin in much the same way as quinoa. It blends perfectly into either hot, cold, sweet or savoury meals and has a moreish earthy taste. We think it falls somewhere between wheat, berries and brown rice.
When you cook amaranth grain you will notice that it has a similar texture to steel cut oats, just slightly crunchier. It works well as a thickener for sauces, soups or stews. On top of that, you can incorporate it into breads, pancakes, and even cookies.
Adding a portion of amaranth to you cooking is a great way of making it gluten-free and easily upgrading the overall nutritional value of your dish.
Amaranth grain contains high quality protein
Amaranth is high in protein, but more specifically, it contains amino acids which your body needs to function well.
A cup of cooked amaranth (246g) grain has 9.3g of protein, which is roughly a fifth of the daily requirement.(1) For a quick reminder, protein is made up of 20 amino acids. Eleven of these we can produce and the other nine we must obtain from our diet. When a food contains all nine of these amino acids, it is called a ‘complete protein’.
Amaranth grain contains 18 amino acids and is considered an almost complete protein source.
It’s also high in fibre
We all know that we could benefit from a high-fibre diet. Fibre is essential for healthy digestion, and to make sure you get the most out of the other nutrients you eat.
With over 5g of fibre, a cup of cooked amaranth grain satisfies about a fifth of our daily fibre needs.(1)
Research indicates that 78% of the fibre in amaranth is insoluble and 22% is soluble.(2) Insoluble fibre promotes the movement of material through your digestive system and increases stool bulk, while soluble fibre forms a gel-like structure and traps fats, sugars, bacteria and toxins. Both types have important benefits for your health, and amaranth can put you well on your way to reaching your recommended daily amount of overall fibre.
Not only does fibre in amaranth aid our digestion, it also helps to naturally lower cholesterol levels.
Fibre acts on bile, pulling it out of the body with more frequent bowel movements. Bile is comprised of water, fats and cholesterol. Because of this process, the liver has to make more bile, which uses up the body’s cholesterol stores, lowering cholesterol overall.
A study run by the International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research showed that amaranth grain was able to decrease bad cholesterol (very low-density LDL cholesterol) by 21% to 50%.(3)
Amaranth seed oil is one of the best plant sources of squalene
Not only is amaranth an excellent source of fibre and protein, it’s also the leading natural plant-based source for squalene.
Although most commonly associated with olive oil, cold-pressed amaranth seed oil contains ten times as much squalene.(4)(5)
Our skin contains squalene. It is found in the outer layer of the skin and plays an important role in protecting you against UV radiation. Without enough squalene, UV rays can induce inflammation in the skin.
In a study that tested whether squalene could increase procollagen and decrease ultraviolet-induced DNA damage, 40 women over the age of 50 were given squalene supplementation in low and high doses. Squalene proved to be effective at reducing cell death caused by UV radiation.
Those who received lower dosage experienced reduced redness and improved collagen activity and those with higher dosage saw a reduction in wrinkles.(6)
Amaranth is high in magnesium
A cup of cooked amaranth grain contains 160mg of magnesium, which satisfies roughly 40% of the recommended daily amount.(1)
Although magnesium is found in many plant-based foods, and is especially abundant in leafy vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, Western diets often do not meet the necessary magnesium requirements.
Magnesium deficiency symptoms are not as evident as those of iron. Our kidneys are so good at doing their job that they suppress the acute symptoms by limiting the amount of magnesium lost through urination. However, if levels remain low over time, you may start experiencing loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, fatigue and weakness.(7)
It can also replenish your stores of iron
Iron deficiencies are very common, and we could probably all do with a little more in our diets. Incorporating iron-rich foods is especially important to those who do not eat animal products.
With each serving (one cup) of cooked amaranth grain boasting over 5mg of iron, which is more than a quarter of your daily value, it acts well in conjunction with other high-iron sources to help satisfy your body’s daily requirement.
Iron is essential for the health of our red blood cells. Haemoglobin in these cells transfers the oxygen from our lungs into other tissues in our body, so it’s very important to keep them working healthily.
Men and women store significantly different amounts of iron in their body. For instance, the average adult male stores about 1,000mg of iron, which can last up to three years. At the same time, women only store about 300mg of iron, which is enough for roughly six months. Iron deficiency is very common with blood loss being one of the most common causes.(8)
However, you can recoup iron through your diet by looking out for foods which are naturally good sources, such as amaranth and Jerusalem artichoke.
How to bring amaranth into your kitchen
With any new ingredient, it’s helpful to get a few ideas of how you can use it in your daily recipes. Luckily, amaranth comes in lots of different forms, all with brilliant health benefits. So, whatever your style of cooking, amaranth will fit brilliantly into your recipes.
Amaranth seed oil is fantastic for drizzling over salads or adding to smoothies. It brings a nutty flavour and comes with valuable nutrients, most importantly squalene, vitamin E and omega-6 fatty acids. It also works perfectly on porridge, yogurts and soups.
Amaranth grain can substitute quinoa, millet or rice alongside a main dish. It’s a no-frills ingredient with a fibre and protein content to be proud of. Perfect in sweet and savoury dishes.
Amaranth flour can help you channel your inner Mary Berry, but in an easy gluten-free way. Transform your favourite baking recipes into high protein and fibre-rich showstoppers for the whole family. Erbology Amaranth Flour is 100% organic and raw, so you can be sure there are no hidden nasties.
And why not give your porridge or yogurt a light crunch by sprinkling puffed amaranth over it? It offers a unique makeover to your meals while seriously boosting nutritional value.
Make delicious recipes with amaranth.
For further inspiration, why not try one of our delicious amaranth recipes?
Whether you’re looking to pass the time on a rainy Sunday afternoon or just crave a tray of delicious hot treats, this Gluten-free amaranth cookie recipe has everything you love about cookies and none of what you don’t. We like to have a couple of these along with an Aronia and pumpkin chocolate smoothie.
For something a little more savoury, you might want to try our Amaranth and green lentil patty recipe. Their satisfying flavour and protein rich punch is sure to satisfy any hunger pangs.
Finally, for something light and easy, whip up a batch of Puffed amaranth protein bars. They are perfect to pop in your bag to boost your energy during a hectic day. Or, pack a hearty lunchbox with our Fennel and lentil salad recipe with squalene-rich amaranth seed oil.
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