Try this gluten-free grain
by Pamela Durkin
Does your intake of whole grains consist of the reliable, but rather mundane duo, whole wheat and brown rice? Or do you find that gluten-containing grains wreak havoc with your digestive system? If you answered yes to either question, consider adding amaranth and its health benefits to your culinary repertoire.
This ancient gluten-free grain, once prized by the Aztecs, is experiencing a renaissance fuelled by its remarkable nutritional profile, great taste, and versatility in the kitchen.
A relative of the common pigweed, amaranth was a staple in the diets of pre-Columbian Aztecs in Mexico and Peru. There are actually over 50 different plant species in the genus Amaranthus. The tiny seeds the Aztecs prized, now commonly referred to as a grain, played an intricate role in their religious ceremonies and rituals.
The Aztecs believed that consuming amaranth imparted increased energy and strength. When the invading Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico in the 1500s they swiftly set about eradicating the Aztecs’ beloved crop—very few plants survived. Thankfully, the plant made a comeback in Mexico, and more recently, its growing reputation as a superfood has ignited interest in amaranth in other parts of the world. It is now cultivated in the US, South America, Europe, and China.
What’s in amaranth that garners such attention? Plenty—although tiny in size, the tan-coloured seeds pack a nutritional punch that is unrivalled among cereal grains. Amaranth is loaded with calcium, magnesium, iron, phosphorus, potassium, and B vitamins. It is also high in protein and abundant in lysine, an essential amino acid missing from most grains.
Unlike other grains, amaranth is a rich source of essential fatty acids, including the heart-healthy oleic acid normally associated with olive oil. But its nutrient density doesn’t end there—amaranth is also chock full of health-enhancing peptides and phytochemicals such as rutin, nicotiflorin, squalene, and lunasin. This all-star lineup of nutrients can improve your health in several ways.
Adding amaranth to your menu may be one of your best defences against cancer. Lunasin, a bioactive peptide in amaranth, has been shown to inhibit the development of cancer cells. While soy also contains lunasin, researchers have found that the lunasin in amaranth penetrates the nucleus of cancer cells more rapidly. There’s more good news—scientists have discovered that squalene, one of amaranth’s antioxidant compounds, may halt the blood supply to tumours.
Knocks out cardiovascular disease
Oats get most of the attention when it comes to heart-healthy grains, but amaranth is equally good for our ticker. Several animal studies have demonstrated amaranth’s ability to lower triglycerides and LDL (bad) cholesterol.
Recently, Russian researchers confirmed amaranth oil’s heart-healthy benefits in humans. They found that amaranth consumption significantly lowered blood pressure, triglycerides, and LDL cholesterol; and aided in heart rhythm normalization. Not surprisingly, researchers reached the conclusion that amaranth should be considered a functional food in the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease.
When it comes to bones, amaranth offers up a payload of minerals renowned for keeping them strong—calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and manganese. Mother Nature also wisely added high amounts of the amino acid lysine to this mix.
What’s lysine got to do with bone health? Plenty—it helps the body absorb calcium and decreases the amount of calcium lost in urine. Lysine also plays a role in the formation of collagen, a substance crucial for sturdy bones. Furthermore, studies indicate lysine and L-arginine, another amino acid, work together to make bone-building cells more active.
Irons out anemia
Anemia makes you pale and weak, and can cause headaches and a poor appetite. Not getting enough iron in your diet can increase your risk for anemia. Amaranth can help. Loaded with 5.17 mg per 1 cup (250 mL) serving, amaranth provides plenty of iron to keep anemia at bay.
A bowl of amaranth may be as good for your noggin as it is for your heart. Rutin and nicotiflorin, two polyphenols found in amaranth, have established anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Science has now provided evidence that they also have a neuroprotective effect. A recent study found that they not only decreased inflammatory cytokines, but also aided in the repair of damaged brain cells.
Preparation and serving suggestions
To cook one serving of amaranth:
Bring 1 cup (250 mL) liquid to a boil, add 1/4 cup (60 mL) amaranth, cover and reduce to simmer. Cook for 20 minutes or until liquid is absorbed.
For a nutritious breakfast:
Cook amaranth in milk and top with nuts and dried fruit.
As a nutritious topping and snack:
You can pop amaranth seeds just like popcorn. Popped amaranth makes a crunchy topping for salads and soups. It can also be mixed with honey, dried fruit, and nuts to make energy bars. In Mexico it is mixed with molasses to make a crunchy snack called alegria, which means joy or happiness in Spanish.
To make a savoury side dish:
Cook amaranth in stock or juice; add your favourite seasonings and a dollop of butter. A blend of apple juice, garlic, and ginger makes a perfect simmering medium for amaranth.
As a thickener:
Add a few tablespoons of amaranth to help thicken soups, stews, or gravies.
As a rice substitute:
Cooked amaranth can be refried in place of rice.
It can also be added to muffins or cookies for added nutrition and texture.
1 cup (250 mL) cooked amaranth contains~
9.35 g protein
5.2 g fibre
116 mg calcium
364 mg phosphorus
332 mg potassium
5.17 mg iron
2.12 mg zinc
0.37 mg copper
13.5 mcg selenium
0.58 mg niacin
About the Author
Pamela Durkin is a registered nutritional consultant and freelance writer. She adores all-star grains such as amaranth.