Amaranth – for a healthy heart and more

13 August, 2015

It’s a tiny seed with big health benefits.

Amaranth is an ancient grain used in a variety of foods such as soups, stews, sauces, porridges, cookies, bread and more. In addition, the stems and leaves of this plant, which is close related to spinach, are also commonly used in animal feed – though humans can also eat them!

The name comes from the Greek word amarantos – meaning “the immortal” or “everlasting” – a reference to a vibrant red flower head which maintains its colour even after it’s dried.

Amaranth was once a staple crop of the Toltec, Maya, and other Mesoamerican civilizations. The Aztecs believed that amaranth gave them great physical and spiritual strength.

What you need to know

» Considered a weed by some farmers, amaranth is actually an ancient ‘pseudo-cereal’ whose seeds can be used like grains. It’s spinach-like leaves are also widely consumed.

» Amaranth is high in protein and nutrients like calcium, iron, potassium, and magnesium, and B vitamins – and it is gluten free.

» Studies show that the nutritional components of amaranth have heart benefits, high antioxidant activity and are even neuroprotective.

We can’t vouch for that but the amaranth seed is getting more and more attention for its multiple nutritional benefits.

A pseudo-grain

Amaranth is a fast growing plant which has a tolerance to drought conditions, can grow in poor soils. It’s easily cultivated throughout the year making an ideal crop in regions where conventional crops might find it hard to adapt.

It’s worth clarifying that although we call amaranth a grain in fact, is actually what is known as a ‘pseudo-grain’ or pseudo-cereal’.

True cereal grains come from grasses, but pseudo-grains, although they look and are often used like grains are not grasses. Other popular pseudo-grains include buckwheat and quinoa.

Some farmers consider it a weed, but amaranth is a nutritional powerhouse waiting for us to catch on to its benefits.

Compared to most other grains, amaranth is relatively high in protein – containing up to 20%. It contains a balanced amino acid composition which is close to the optimum for humans, it’s rich in important minerals, such as calcium, iron, potassium, and magnesium, and B vitamins and it’s also highly digestible. And because it is not a true grain it does not contain any gluten, making it a useful ingredient for gluten-free foods.

Emerging research

In one of the most comprehensive reviews into amaranth’s benefits, earlier this year, researchers from universities in the US and Mexico  found that amaranth contained an array of nutrients that could to help prevent cardiovascular disease, diabetes and even cancer.

Amaranth, they note, could be used as a functional food on its own, but substances derived from the plant could also be used as ingredients in functional foods to help in the prevention and reduction of chronic diseases.

According to research held at the University of Guelph in Canada, amaranth is a rich dietary source of phytosterols and fibre, which possess cholesterol-lowering properties.

Lunasin, a peptide found in amaranth possesses cancer-preventive properties and combats inflammation associated with health conditions like diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

Amaranth leaves have also been singled out as one of the best sources of rutin, a flavonoid that has been researched extensively as a potential dietary remedy for varicose veins due to its ability to strengthen capillary walls.

As well as rutin amaranth contains nicotiflorin; the combination means it is heart healthy and has an anti-inflammatory effect. These two phytochemicals also have a neuro-protective and have been shown to assist in the repair of damaged brain cells.

Amaranth seed oil is one of the richest dietary sources of squalene oil, which possesses excellent anti-inflammatory benefits. Animal research conducted by US Department of Agriculture found that the healthy oils in amaranth reduce total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol in hamsters – human research is still lacking!

Brazilian researchers conducted laboratory and animal study to assess the antioxidant properties of Amaranthus hypochondriacus, a species commonly used to produce amaranth flour. Laboratory testing showed that amaranth seed extract contained useful levels of antioxidant phenols naturally occurring plant compounds as well as measurable antioxidant activity.

Testing the extract in animals they found that, amaranth seed extract helped protect the blood and livers of rats from the toxic effects of ethanol.

Versatility on a plate

Amaranth can be simmered like other grains and has a porridge-like texture. It can be combined with other grains if you want a more ‘rice-like’ dish. It can even be popped like popcorn, which gives it a nutty flavour and crunchy texture.

Flour from the seed can be used to make gluten-free bread (add up to 25% of the total flour mixture) and pancakes. In Latin America it is also used to make candy and beverages.

Because amaranth is not yet as widely cultivated as some other grains it can be expensive, but in terms of nutritional bang for your buck, it is well worth seeking out and adding to your diet when you can.

And while most people concentrate on the grain, the leaves have real benefits too.

When you can get them or grow them the leaves taste rather like spinach and are popular almost everywhere except in the west where we can be slow to take up new food ideas.

In India and Sri Lanka for example they are often served with rice. The Chinese love young greens in stir-fries mixed with chicken or pork meats or Pinyin soup. Vietnamese use the leaves to make soup. Thais cook this leafy vegetable as spinach.

In the Caribbean, the leaves are stewed with garlic, onions, and tomatoes, or made into pepperpot soup

Greeks cook a healthy dish called vlita with boiled green leaves mixed with vinegar and olive oil and serve it with fish.

The leaves do contain some oxalic acid which inhibits absorption of calcium and zinc. For this reason they may be best avoided by those with rheumatoid arthritis, gout, or kidney diseases.

There is life beyond bread, pasta and rice so whichever way you use it, why not try broadening your diet to include some amaranth?!