Sunday, 18 September 2011

The Amaranth Series: Amaranth: The Nutrient Dense Plant

Amaranth: The Nutrient Dense Plant

Amaranth [Amaranthus hypochondriacus, A. cruentus (Grain type) & A. tricolor (Vegetable type)] is an herbaceous annual with upright growth habit, cultivated for both its seeds which are used as a grain and its leaves which are used as a vegetable or greens. Both leaves and seeds contain protein of an unusually high quality (Robert L. Myers, 2010). Amaranth is not in the grass family, therefore is not considered a cereal grain. However, since it is used much like cereal grains, it is often called a pseudocereal. The grain is milled for flour or popped like popcorn. The leaves of both the grain and vegetable types may be eaten raw or cooked. Amaranths grown principally for vegetable use have better tasting leaves then the grain types (Kelly and Price, 2008). This underutilised plant has promising economic value. The challenge is to find ways to incorporate it into existing food products, as well as to create new products from it. Amaranth was a major food of the Aztecs and earlier American cultures, having been domesticated thousands of years ago (Myers, 2010). According to Kelly and Price, (2008) amaranth was a staple of the Aztecs and was incorporated into their religious ceremonies. In the 1500’s the Spanish conquistadors prohibited amaranth production and today only a limited amount of amaranth grain is grown in this area, most of which is popped and mixed with honey to make a confection called, "alegría." However, much of the genetic base has been maintained there because amaranth has continued to grow as a wildflower.  Peruvians use fermented amaranth seed to make "chicha", a local beer. In the Cusco area the flowers are used to treat toothache and fevers and as a food colorant for maize and quinoa. During the carnival festival women dancers often use the red amaranth flower as rouge, painting their cheeks, then dancing while carrying bundles of amaranth on their backs as they would a baby. In both Mexico and Peru the amaranth leaves are gathered then used as a vegetable either boiled or fried. In India amaranth is known as "rajeera" (the King’s grain) and is popped then used in confections called "laddoos," which are similar to Mexican "alegria." In Nepal, amaranth seeds are eaten as gruel called "sattoo" or milled into flour to make chappatis. In Ecuador, the flowers are boiled then the colored boiling water is added to "aquardeinte" rum to create a drink that "purifies the blood," and is also reputed to help regulate the menstrual cycle.
Myers, 2010, reported that the attraction of the crop to both earlier civilizations and modern consumers is because it is a highly nutritious. Amaranth seeds are unusually high in protein for a non-legume, running around 14 to 16% proteins. The protein is well balanced in amino acids, and is high in lysine, an amino acid most grains are deficient in (legumes also have high lysine). Amaranths are tall (.5 to 2 m or 2 to 8 ft) and moderately branched from a main stem. Grain types form large loose panicles at the tips of the stems. Vegetable types form flowers and seeds along the stems. Grain types may grow to 2 meters and produce yields comparable to rice or maize (2,500 kg/ha or 1,000 lb/a).  Amaranth has a "C-4" photosynthetic pathway (along with such plants as corn and sorghum), which enables it to be uniquely efficient in utilizing sunlight and nutrients at high temperatures. It is more drought-resistant than maize and thrives in 30-35o C temperatures. It tolerates poor fertility and drought, although the tolerance mechanism is not well understood. Plant quality however, is poor under stressful conditions. Amaranth responds well to fertilizer.  As with other small grains, amaranth may be processed in popped, flaked, extruded and ground flour forms. In Mexico, the popped amaranth confection, alegría is a popular favorite among locals and tourists alike. The flour or flaked forms are combined with wheat or other flours to make cereals, cookies, bread and other baked goods. Originally it was recommended that amaranth make up only 10-20% of the flour blend, but studies have shown that it can be blended at 50-75% levels and still maintain functional properties and flavor.  Coarsely ground amaranth makes a tasty and nutritious porridge cooked by itself or mixed with other grains. Other seed components with useful potential include anthocyanin (red) pigments to produce non-toxic natural dyes, microcrystalline starch for food and industry and squalene, specialized oil used in skin cosmetics, computer and pharmaceutical industries.(Kelly and price, 2008)


Kauffman, C.S., and L.E. Weber. 1990. Grain amaranth. p. 127-139. In: J. Janick and J.E. Simon (eds.), Advances in new crops. Timber Press, Portland, OR.
Erin Rigik (2009); Ancient grains help bakers achieve healthful label claims and give products value-added appeal.
Uses of Amaranth
Amaranth is a highly nutritious food. The leaves, shoots and tender stems are eaten as a potherb in sauces or soups, cooked with other vegetables, with a main dish or by itself. The seed or grain is also edible. Chopped plants have been used as forage for livestock. And, the flowers make nice ornamentals, fresh or dried.
Nutritious Grain Crop. Amaranth grain has more protein than corn, and the protein is of an unusually high quality. It is high in the amino acid lysine, which is the limiting amino acid in cereals like maize, wheat and rice. The protein is also relatively rich in the sulfur-containing amino acids, which are normally limiting in the pulse crops (e.g. dry beans). The "protein complement" of amaranth grain is very near to the levels recommended by FAO/WHO. It has a protein score of 67 to 87. Protein scores are determined by taking the ratio of the essential amino acids to the level for those amino acids recommended by FAO/WHO, and multiplying by 100. By comparison, wheat (14% protein) scores 47, soybeans (37%) score 68-89, rice (7%) scores 69, maize (9%) scores 35. Although amaranth is theoretically close to the ideal, combining it with another grain increases the quality to very close to the FAO/WHO standards.
Weight gain studies with rats (Cheeke, 1980) demonstrated, however that the actual nutritional value is less than would be expected from the above considerations. This is due to anti-nutritional factors in the raw amaranth grain. Cooking reduces the toxic effects. Apparently the problems, including the unpalatability, were caused by saponins and phenolic compounds in the amaranth grain. (Myers,2010)
Nutritious Animal Feed. The raw amaranth grain contains toxins and anti-nutritional factors that can reduce its effectiveness as an animal feed. Myers, (2010) reported that according to Dr. Cheeke relating to a personal communication how a scientist in Australia fed raw amaranth grain to poultry as the major component of the diet. As a result the chickens went into convulsions and died. An unidentified toxic factor had caused liver damage leading to the death of the chickens.
Recent research has confirmed the use of cooked or autoclaved amaranth grain for use as chicken feed, giving production results comparable to those from feeding corn/soybean ration (Kelly and Price, 2008) Processed amaranth (A. hypochondriacus) grain is a potentially useful energy supplement for broiler diets and can be incorporated at levels up to 400 g per kg without adverse effects.(Kelly and Price, 2008). Amaranth also solves the problems of formulating hog feed without using often prohibited animal protein.(Kelly and Price, 2008) utilized the quality of the amaranth protein, particularly because of the amino acid lysine, to formulate a complete feed ration using both grain and plant biomass to successfully fatten hogs.
For human consumption, amaranth leaves and stems, or entire plants may be eaten raw or cooked as spinach or greens. As discussed earlier, cooking and discarding the water will remove potentially harmful oxalates and nitrates. According to Myers, (2010), there exist very few raw foodstuffs that do not have problems. Raw soybeans contain 10 kinds of toxins; raw kidney beans kill rats, and yet cooking eliminates these problems. The key seems to be to use amaranth (leaf or grain) in recommended amounts, and to cook it. The seeds from grain amaranth can be ground for use as good quality flour for breads or pastries. It must be combined with wheat flour for yeast dough. The Organic Farming and Research Center (Rodale) used a 50:50 ratio successfully, but suggests that the percentage of amaranth could be greater. They state that "amaranth flour contributes to the sweetness and moistness of a baked good".
In a number of African nations, amaranth is becoming an important nutritious food in regards to treating those suffering from HIV/AIDS. It is known that on a poor diet, the anti-retroviral drugs function poorly or not at all. Often, the drug becomes a toxin in itself. Amaranth grain porridge (1 cup) combined together with moringa leaf powder (1 Tbsp) from moringa leaves (Moringa oleifera), according to ECHO Technical Notes on Moringa provide not only an excellent nutritional food for the AIDS sufferer, but those consuming the amaranth/moringa combination are able to take anti-retroviral drugs with no complications. Alternatively, amaranth seeds can be popped like popcorn. Rodale says that popped amaranth can be used: in confections bound with sorghum, molasses or honey, in high-energy granola and granola bars, in cheese spreads, as a condiment to flavor salad dressings, in breading for chicken and fish, in crackers, pie crusts and breads, and as toppings for casseroles and desserts.

Composition of Amaranth:

The harvested amaranth plant is 50-80 % edible (Oke, 1980), which only 20-30% of most vegetable plants is utilized directly for human consumption in the United States (Kramer and Kwee, 1977). The crude protein content of grain amaranth ranges from 12.5 to 17.6 % dry matter. This is higher than in most common grains except soybeans. Grain amaranth protein contains around 5% lysine and 4.4% sulfur amino acids, which are the limiting amino acids in other grains (Senft, 1980). The total lipid content of grain amaranth ranges from 5.4 to 17.0% dry matter and has a high level of unsaturation (about 75%), containing almost 50 % linoleic acid (Opute, 1979; Carlsson, 1980; Becker et al., 1981; Badami and Patil, 1976). Amaranth leaves contain 17.4-38.3 % dry matter as crude protein, averaging 5% lysine and thus having potential as a protein supplement (Oliveira and de Carvalho, 1975). However, Cheeke et al. (1981) argued that the presence of saponins, alkaloids, phenolics, and oxalates might have a negative effect on leaf protein concentrate quality.
The major unsaturated fatty acids in A. tricolor are linoleic in seeds (49%) and stems (46%) and linolenic in leaves (42%), while the major saturated fatty acid in seeds, stems, and leaves is palmitic acid at 18-25% of total fatty acids (Fernando and Bean, 1984).
Vitamins C and A are present at nutritionally significant levels (Table 6), averaging 420 ppm of vitamin C and 250 ppm of §-carotene (Wills et al., 1984). Trace quantities of vitamin B-12-like activity were found in A. hypochondriacus leaves, though the exact nature of this activity could not be concluded (Jathar et al., 1974). Minerals such as potassium, iron, magnesium, and calcium (Table 6) exist also in significant concentrations, with average values of 287 ppm of iron and 2.1 % calcium (dry matter). The presence of large amounts of oxalate(s), ranging from 0.2 to 11.4% (dry weight), may limit availability of these nutrients.

Robert L. Myers, 2010. GRAIN AMARANTH, A Lost Crop of the Americans published by the Jefferson Institute, Columbia, MO,
O’Brien G. Kelly and Martin L. Price, 2008. AMARANTH Grain & Vegetable Types, Published by ECHO. Available at

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