In Greek, the word "amaranth" means “everlasting” or “unfading," which has made the amaranth plant the subject of many a romantic poem. But the real magic lies in its nutritional value and the health benefits amaranth provides as a staple of a whole foods diet.
The amaranth plant has been grown since the time of the ancient Incas and Aztecs, but it only reached the United States in the 1970s. It abounds in the tropical and temperate countries of the Asian continent and Central America and is now grown in the central United States for its fiber and protein content. Amaranth is an annual herb with a height taller than most, growing up to five feet high. It has strong stalks and green leaves with hints of red and purple. The amaranth's flowers are tiny and with a deep red color.
Uses for Amaranth
The leaves and seeds are the edible parts of the amaranth plant. The leaves are commonly boiled, blanched, steamed or stir-fried and eaten in salads or soups in many parts of Asia, Africa and Central America. In the U.S., the seeds are used as grain and ground to make flour, popped to mix into snack bars, roasted to sprinkle over salads or combined with rice and cooked. Amaranth becomes gelatinous when cooked, so the typical ratio of rice to amaranth seeds is two to one.
Why Eat Amaranth?
Amaranth has been touted as “the crop of the future” for its high nutritional value and ease of preparation while remaining relatively inexpensive. Studies have shown amaranth flour made from ground grain or seed can replace 50 percent of the white flour in baked products without affecting their taste. One hundred grams of amaranth grain has fewer calories and higher fiber and protein content than white rice. As a protein source, amaranth does not contain saturated fat or trans fat, making it a healthy replacement for animal proteins like red meat. Amaranth supplements are also available.
Nutrients in Amaranth and Their Benefits
Amaranth leaves and grains have high protein content which promotes proper growth, development and body functions. Amaranth has about 30 percent more protein than rice, sorghum and rye, yet amaranth has zero cholesterol and saturated fats which contribute to weight gain and raised cholesterol levels. Being overweight or obese and having hypercholesterolemia are risk factors for cardiovascular diseases, including heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure and coronary artery diseases. This protein is also gluten-free -- perfect for people who are allergic to the gluten in wheat and rye.
Amaranth leaves and grains are rich in dietary fiber, with 100 grams of amaranth containing double the amount found in the same quantity of white rice. Fiber adds bulk to stool, prevents constipation and binds itself to toxins in the stomach. These toxins come from an unhealthy diet and enter the bloodstream, causing heart diseases, diabetes, arthritis and cancers. By binding to fiber, they are washed away, cleansing the body and reducing the risk for illness.
This sterol precursor found in plants helps lower cholesterol in the body and reduce the incidence of cardiovascular accidents.
Amaranth sets itself apart from other grains with its high lysine content. Lysine is an essential amino acid that promotes the production of carnitine, a nutrient that turns fatty acid into energy. It lowers cholesterol levels in the body and helps in weight reduction.
Vitamins and folates:
Vitamins play important roles in the body, maintaining health and as antioxidants fighting free radicals. A vitamin deficiency weakens the immune system, exposing the body to acute infections and illness. Cooked amaranth leaves and grains are great sources of vitamin A, vitamin C and folates. They also provide B complex vitamins, such as thiamine, niacin and riboflavin.
Amaranth grains and leaves also contain more of the following minerals than other gluten-free grains:
Calcium -- Builds strong bones and teeth, prevents osteoporosis and regulates heart rate.
Iron -- Supports the red blood cells which carry oxygen to all parts of the body.
Magnesium -- Important for muscle and nerve function and for normal heart rates.
Phosphorus -- Complements the role of calcium in promoting strong bones and teeth.
Zinc -- Strengthens bones and hair and is important in proper wound healing.