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Amaranth: A Nutritious and Tasty Gluten-Free Grain Substitute

Linda Crampton is an experienced teacher with an honors degree in biology. She writes about nutrition and the culture and history of food.

One of the many types of amaranth plants

One of the many types of amaranth plants

A Useful Grain Substitute

Wheat is the dominant grain used by many families in North American society. Rice, corn, and oats are also popular. Many other grains and grain-like foods are available, however. These foods provide an interesting variety of tastes and nutrients and make great alternatives to the usual choices. Amaranth is one of these useful alternatives. Its seeds can be used like a grain and have another very important benefit—they are gluten-free.

Gluten in a protein complex found in wheat, rye, and barley. Some people avoid gluten by choice and others avoid it by necessity. People with celiac disease must avoid the substance because it damages the lining of their small intestine. Amaranth is a great food choice for people with celiac disease and for everyone else.

Amaranthus caudataus, love-lies-bleeding, or tassel flower; the red color is due to pigments called betacyanins

Amaranthus caudataus, love-lies-bleeding, or tassel flower; the red color is due to pigments called betacyanins

Facts About the Amaranth Plant

Amaranth belongs to the genus Amaranthus. The genus is the first part of the scientific name of a plant, and the species is the second part. 50 to 70 species of Amaranthus exist. The exact number depends on the classification scheme that's used. The genus is widespread and found in many countries.

The leaves and seeds of some species in the genus are used for food. The plants are valued for their resistance to drought. A few species are used as ornamental plants. Others are used to produce a red dye. Some are considered to be weeds.

Amaranth isn't closely related to grains. Unlike grains, which have long and narrow leaves, amaranth plants have broad leaves. Grains belong to the plant family called the Poaceae (formerly known as the Gramineae) within a group of flowering plants known as monocots. Amaranth belongs to the family Amaranthaceae within the plant group known as dicots.

(The) genus name comes from the Greek word amarantos meaning unfading in reference to the long-lasting flowers of some species.

— Missouri Botanical Garden

Flowers and Seeds

Amaranth flowers are white, green, orange-brown, red-brown, or red in color, depending on the species. They are arranged in erect spikes, hanging tassels, or globes. The individual flowers and seeds are tiny. A spike, tassel, or globe of a single plant produces many flowers and many seeds.

Some people grow their own amaranth at home. The plants are often attractive when they are in bloom. It may be time consuming to separate the seeds from the rest of the plant and to prepare them for use, however.

Gardeners often obtain the seeds by shaking a spike or tassel or by rubbing it between their hands. The seeds are covered with a hull or husk, which must be removed before they can be eaten.The seeds are massaged between the hands to remove the covering, which is then referred to as chaff. The chaff is gently blown away.

Anyone who wants to grow their own amaranth should investigate the best species for their purpose. In addition to finding a plant that grows well in the local climate, a person should explore whether a species is best suited for ornamental flower or leaf production, edible leaf production, or seed production.

Not all species of amaranth have red flowers. This is Amaranthus retroflexus.

Not all species of amaranth have red flowers. This is Amaranthus retroflexus.

Amaranth is a fast-growing plant and has been used by humans since ancient times. Archaeological evidence indicates that the seeds were gathered as early as 4000 BC.

A Natural Pigment and a Synthetic Dye

A red pigment is extracted from the flowers of some amaranth plants and used as a food dye. The dye is used to color corn dough, alcoholic beverages, and other foods and drinks.

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The artificial dye known as "amaranth" has a color that resembles that of red amaranth flowers but otherwise has no connection to the plant. In the United States, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has banned the use of the artificial dye because it's a suspected carcinogen, or a chemical that causes cancer.

In countries where the synthetic dye has not been banned, it's important to determine whether a red dye with amaranth in its name is made of the the natural pigment obtained from the plant or the artificial one made in industry. The synthetic product is sometimes referred to as an azo dye. The word "azo" is related to the chemical structure of the dye.

Flour made from the seeds of the amaranth plant

Flour made from the seeds of the amaranth plant

Uses of Amaranth Seeds

Historically, amaranth has been most popular in South America, Asia, and Africa. Now other parts of the world are discovering its benefits. The seeds are cream to brown in color, depending on the species. In some countries, they are popped like popcorn. Honey or molasses is often added to the popped seeds to make a candy. The seeds are also ground into a flour and used to make a dough or a gruel. A gruel is made by boiling the flour in water or milk.

In North America, amaranth is sold as a whole "grain" that's ready to cook in boiling water or pop in a hot pan. It's also available in puffed form as a breakfast cereal or is incorporated with other grains in gluten-free cereals. The seeds are sometimes sprouted and are used to make beer. They have a distinctive and interesting taste, which I enjoy. The flavor is nutty but not overpowering.

Amaranth flour is present in breads sold by specialist bakeries and is sold in packages for home baking. The flour is good in recipes for bread, cakes, muffins, pancakes, and other foods. I often have some in my kitchen.

Amaranth seeds are unusually high in protein for a non-legume, running around 14 to 16% protein. Even better, the protein is well balanced in amino acids, and is high in lysine, an amino acid most grains are deficient in.

— Iowa State University Extension and Outreach

Nutritional Benefits of the Seeds

Amaranth seeds are a good source of protein. Depending on the species, the seeds generally contain between 14 and 16 percent protein. This is often (but not always) higher than the percentage in true grains. The protein in the seeds contains a significant quantity of the amino acid lysine. The amount of lysine in grains is very limited.

The seeds are also rich in minerals. They are an excellent source of manganese, a good source of magnesium, phosphorus, iron, selenium, copper, zinc, and calcium, and a moderately good source of potassium. They also contain a good quantity of vitamin B6, folate, and fiber.

The seeds are lower in oil than many other edible seeds. Oil is extracted from amaranth seeds, however, and is used in cosmetics. Some evidence suggests that amaranth oil in the diet lowers the level of LDL cholesterol (the so-called "bad" cholesterol) in the blood. This idea needs to be explored further, however. The studies are old and were done with animals, not humans.

Amaranth seeds are small, as can be seen in this comparison of puffed amaranth (left) and puffed rice (right).

Amaranth seeds are small, as can be seen in this comparison of puffed amaranth (left) and puffed rice (right).

Edible Leaves of Amaranth

Amaranth leaves are a popular vegetable in some parts of the world. They are often used like spinach in salads. They are also used in stir-fry recipes, soups, stews, and curries. I have never eaten the leaves, but apparently only the young ones are suitable for salads. Older ones are said to taste bitter. The bitterness apparently disappears when the leaves are cooked.

The leaves are an excellent source of vitamin C and of vitamin A in the form of beta-carotene. Our bodies change beta-carotene into the form of vitamin A that we need. Since beta-carotene is fat soluble, eating a small quantity of oil with the leaves will help the nutrient to be absorbed. The leaves are also a good source of vitamin B6, folate, and riboflavin.

Amaranth leaves are healthiest when used as a raw salad green. The amount of vitamin C decreases when the leaves are cooked. In addition, boiling the leaves causes water-soluble nutrients (vitamin C and the B family vitamins) to leach into the cooking water.

Like the seeds, the leaves are rich in minerals, including manganese, calcium, magnesium, potassium, potassium, and iron. They also contain copper.

About 3 million Americans have celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that’s triggered when they eat gluten.

— WebMD

Gluten and Celiac Disease

In people with celiac disease, the ingestion of gluten leads to inflammation of the lining of the small intestine. The presence of gluten causes the immune system to mount an abnormal attack on the villi located on the intestinal lining, which damages or destroys them. Villi are tiny folds that absorb nutrients from digested food. When they are absent or nonfunctional, the absorption of nutrients decreases dramatically.

An autoimmune condition is one in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the body's own tissues. Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition, but someone with the disease must eat gluten before the attack on the intestine is activated.

As a result of the damage to the small intestine and insufficient absorption of nutrients, a person with celiac disease may experience a wide variety of symptoms. Continued inflammation caused by gluten exposure increases the risk of intestinal cancer. When the diet is free of gluten, the inflammation generally disappears and the villi are regenerated. The recovery takes time, however.

Since amaranth is both gluten-free and a versatile grain substitute, it's a great food for people who have celiac disease or another form of gluten intolerance. In baking, amaranth flour can be used on its own or mixed with other flours that lack gluten. Gluten-free recipes often use a combination of flours and other ingredients to approximate the effect of gluten, which gives doughs their elasticity.

Foraging for Wild Amaranth

Amaranth is cultivated in some areas, but it's also a wild plant. In British Columbia, where I live, wild amaranth is known as pigweed. The province contains several species of pigweed. Some grow so well that they can be a nuisance in areas growing agricultural crops.

Foraging for food can be an enjoyable activity, but if you intend to collect wild amaranth you should follow some important rules.

  • Ideally, go on your first foraging trip with an expert who has collected the plant before and knows how to recognize it..
  • Be absolutely positive that you have identified a plant correctly and that it's edible. Look at several reference sources that contain color photos and make sure that the photos apply to the plants in your area.
  • Identify a plant by its scientific name, since different plants may have the same common name. The name "pigweed" applies to other plants besides amaranth, for example.
  • If there is any doubt about a plant's identity, don't eat the plant.
  • Plants are often easier to identify when they are mature and flowering.
  • Collect the plant in a clean area away from pollution and pesticides.
  • Never remove all the plants from an area. Leave some to reproduce and spread.
  • As you forage for wild plants, try to do as little damage to the habitat as possible.

The Grain of the Future

Amaranth is a nutritious and tasty food for people on a gluten-free diet, vegans, vegetarians, and everybody else. It's sometimes called the "grain of the future" because of its nutritional benefits. Foods containing amaranth may be found in some supermarkets, but the best choice of products is generally available at health food markets. It's worth trying this interesting grain substitute and considering adding it to the diet, whether or not you are gluten intolerant. I'm glad that I've made it part of my diet.

References

  • Amaranth plant information from Better Homes & Gardens plant encyclopedia
  • Amaranthus caudatus facts from the Missouri Botanical Garden
  • Information about amaranth from Iowa State University Extension and Outreach
  • Nutrients in cooked amaranth grain from SELF Nutrition Data (Data obtained from the USDA, or the United States Department of Agriculture)
  • Nutrients in cooked amaranth leaves from SELF Nutrition Data
  • Information about celiac disease from WebMD
  • Foods for a gluten-free diet from the Mayo Clinic

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2013 Linda Crampton

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