Amaranth

Amaranth is one of Central and South America's best-kept secrets, a "super-food" that offers intense nutritional value and very few calories. Learn all about the grain's rich history and future potential to get inspired to add more of it to a balanced diet.

Quick Facts
General Information
  • Common name(s)Amaranth, kiwicha, pendant amaranth, love-lies-bleeding, velvet flower
  • Scientific nameAmaranthus caudatus
  • Geographic distributionSouth America, Central America, Asia and Eastern Africa.
  • Plant typeVegetable
  • Native regionSouth America, Central America
  • Main producer(s)Mexico, Peru
  • Main Economic UseFood industry, Culinary
Amaranth

As one of many well-kept secrets of South American cuisine, kiwicha, or pendant amaranth, has yet to find its merited worldwide reputation as a staple source of food. New health-conscious initiatives, however, may change that fact very soon: the plant boasts one of the longest histories of use in the Americas for good reason, and its immense nutritional value is garnering "super-food" status slowly but surely around the world. Read on to learn more about its Andean legacy and multiple uses today for inspiration to incorporate it into daily life.

Medicinal and Nutritional Information

Quick Facts (Medicinal and Nutritional Information)
  • Medicinal actionDigestive, Nutritious
  • Ways to useFood, Powder, Essential oil
  • Medicinal rating(3) Reasonably useful plant
  • Safety rankingSafe

Health Benefits of Amaranth

In the areas where it is cultivated, amaranth have been used mainly as a food for its amazing nutritional content. Traditionally, amaranth has been consumed for supplementing calcium intake, since it is rich in this mineral.

However, modern science is currently investigating in order to corroborate some of its traditional and actual uses as a medicine. Preliminary findings suggest that amaranth can be used for the following purposes:

  • Stimulating bowel movements. Amaranth is particularly rich in fiber, which helps regulate intestinal functions.

  • Relieving cold sores. The plant can also be used topically to sooth irritated skin and reduce inflammation.

  • Enhancing cognitive performance. Some studies suggest that amaranth may play a role in preserving and improving cognitive abilities thorough life.

How It Works

Touted as one of the world's healthiest foods, amaranth is an incredible source of nutrients - particularly for children, who can get as much as 70% of their necessary dietary energy from one serving. Amaranth contains high concentrations of phosphorus, potassium, calcium, iron, zinc, vitamins B₁ (thiamin), B₂ (riboflavin), B₃ (niacin), B₆ (pyridoxine), and E, along with flavonoids.

AMARANTH CONTAINS 10% MORE PROTEIN THAN ANY OTHER GRAIN, INCLUDING THE ESSENTIAL AMINO ACID LYSINE, WHICH CANNOT BE PRODUCED BY THE HUMAN BODY.

Amaranth's use as an herbal medicine is derived from its high content of vitamins and minerals. Its great amount of calcium in particular has been used to prevent osteoporosis. In addition, its high protein and low calorie value, combined with its antioxidants, makes it an effective weight loss tool, additionally preventing excess buildup of LDL, or "bad" cholesterol.

Additionally, many of amaranth's medicinal applications come from its richness in the amino acid ʟ-lysine, which is crucial for many functions in the body. It plays a role in the production of collagen, calcium absorption, and the conversion of fat into energy. Several other traditional uses are still undergoing research to substantiate their claims.

Sacha inchi and quinoa also possess nutritious properties, whereas kiwi and pineapple can be used as alternative sources for digestive benefits as well.

How to Consume Amaranth

Quick Facts (How to Consume)
  • Edible partsLeaves, Seed
  • Edible usesColoring, Beverage, Oil, Protein
  • TasteEarthy

Both traditional and modern uses for amaranth have been mostly culinary, with the leaves and seeds of the plant being a food source. However, amaranth is increasingly being used as an ingredient in dietary and herbal products.

Supplements

Main preparations: oil, capsules, dietary supplements

For those looking to reap the plant's many health benefits in consistent doses, amaranth can be found as a powder in capsules and dietary supplements.

On the other hand, many health benefits are attributed to amaranth's oil, including lowering blood pressure, aiding cardiovascular function, and improving skin appearance.

Appropriate concentrations differ between individuals, so it is important to follow label instructions and consult a healthcare professional before embarking on a supplemental regimen.

Food

Main preparations: raw and cooked leaves, cooked seeds, popped seeds, flakes, flour

The nutty amaranth seeds can be cooked like rice, in soups, salads, and stews, or ground into flour. Recent trends use the popped seeds as a topping for salads and desserts, and amaranth flakes as a breakfast cereal.

Less popular, but perhaps more ancient, is the tradition of eating amaranth leaves, which are said to have a similar flavor to spinach. Whether raw or cooked, leaves can be used in soups and salads, giving off a mild flavor.

Buying

Raw and Simply Processed Amaranth

As its international reach begins to grow, kiwicha can be found in an increasing number of grocery stores and supermarkets year-round. In some locations, seeds may only be available in ethnic markets or specialized health food stores, but health-conscious movements are working to change this for the well-being of all consumers.

Amaranth Supplements

Herbal supplements that feature kiwicha are available through specialized herbal stores and online retailers. However, the internet provides consumers with the widest variety of possibilities regarding style and price.

Growing

Quick Facts (Growing)
  • Life cycleAnnual
  • Harvested partsSeeds, Leaves
  • Light requirementsFull sun, Partial shade
  • SoilMedium (loam)
  • Soil pH6.1 – 6.5 (Slightly acidic), 6.6 – 7.3 (Neutral), 7.4 – 7.8 (Slightly alkaline)
  • Growing habitatWarm climates
  • Pre-germination seed treatmentNone
  • Planting timeRight after last frost
  • Potential insect pestsBeetles, Slugs, Snails

Amaranth (Amaranthus caudatus) requires conditions similar to those of its relative quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) and other members of the Amaranthaceae family.

  • An annual species, amaranth is surprisingly tolerant of a wide range of weather conditions, surviving temperatures from 39 - 104°F (4 - 40°C), although it prefers moderate warmth between 70 - 82°F (21 - 28°C).

  • Altitude is also a shifting variable, as native growths appear at sea level as well as in mountainous altitudes up to 11,800 feet (3,600 m) above sea level.

  • Loose, loamy soils are ideal, though the plant also tolerates salty ground. Amaranth do better in soils that are slightly acidic to slightly alkaline.

  • Proper moisture is critical to initial propagation and pollination. It takes approximately four to six months before seeds are ready to harvest, though each plant can generate up to 100,000 seeds at a time.

More detailed information about growing amaranth can be found in the herb garden section.

Additional Information

Plant Biology

Though normally shorter, amaranth can reach up to 8.2 feet (2.5 m) tall, and branches from the central stalk may start as low as the base, featuring cylindrical panicles of deep red to white flowers that can reach 35 inches (90 cm) long. Large, elliptical leaves are also in abundance, and small, single-seed fruits occur in massive numbers per specimen. The seeds are chiefly put to human use.

  • Classification

    Pendant amaranth, or kiwicha, is a member of the Amaranthaceae, or amaranth family, a classification it shares with roughly 2,500 other species of diverse flowering plants, including crops of economical importance, such as quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) and spinach (Spinacia oleracea).

  • Varieties and Subspecies of Amaranth

    There are over 1,200 naturally occurring varieties of amaranth, generally distinguished by the form and color of the plant's flowers, steam, and leaves. True cultivars have been developed in Peru for the most part, including 'Noel Vietmeyer', a taller version whose seeds are valuable for making flour, and 'Alan Garcia', a shorter plant that produces a higher yield, although it is prone to contamination by pests.

Historical Information

Ranging from the Peruvian Andes to as far north as Mexico, different members of the Amaranthus genus have grown wild throughout Central and South America for at least 7,000 years, although its exact point of origin is unknown. Among these, amaranth is a native from the Central Andes that sets itself apart thanks to its tolerance of various growth conditions, ranging from high mountainous altitudes to sea level. One of its common names, kiwicha, is derived from the Quechua word for the plant, and many English terms, such as "love-lies-bleeding" and "velvet flower," refer to the deep red color of its blooms.

Economic Data

Today, amaranth is widely consumed in Central and South America, with production centering around Peru, where the majority of the world's supply is generated for alimentary and other uses. In 2011 alone, the country yielded over 3,400 tons of the edible seeds, primarily for domestic and regional use. Bolivia, Ecuador, and Mexico are also known for their cultivation efforts, but these occur on a much smaller national scale. Potential for crops in China, Nepal, and India is now receiving more attention.

Bibliography