Why is amaranth called a pseudo cereal and not a grain?
Amaranth (species: Amaranthus) belongs to a different plant species than your typical “true” cereal grains, such as sorghum and oats. But it has a very similar nutrient profile that we’ll look at in a minute. A tall plant with tiny edible seeds (only 1 millimeter across) and broad green leaves,* it’s been used for centuries in traditional diets around the world in much the same way as true cereal grains have. Where in the world? Just about any place with a temperate climate which includes Africa, India and Nepal, non-native regions such as China, Russia, Thailand, Nigeria, Mexico, parts of South America AND even in the U.S. where I read that it grows in Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, North Dakota and New York.
But that’s not all. Last month I saw beautiful amaranth plants growing in the community garden at City Natives in Mattapan, MA, a property of the Trustees of Reservations. Here’s a shout out to a great organization I volunteer with that protects land in MA and encourages local and sustainable food production.
Why is amaranth so great?
There are SO many reasons. People following the gluten-free diet need wholesome nutritious gluten-free grains to take the place of wheat that we used to eat. We also need to avoid an overreliance on the more refined corn, rice, potato and tapioca starch-based foods on the market. PLUS, whole grains, such as amaranth, can help reduce the risks of heart disease, certain types of cancer, and type 2 diabetes, and may also help in weight management.
If you tolerate gluten-free grains and you need more fiber, iron, calcium and vitamins to round out your diet, consider amaranth. While you’re at it, check out teff, sorghum, quinoa, buckwheat and millet, too. It’s one simple way to meet the guidelines for consuming at least one half of your grains each day as whole grains, a recommendation from the US Department of Agriculture’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the Whole Grain Council.
Detailed information on the gluten-free grains can be found here: http://www.bidmc.org/Centers-and-Departments/Departments/Digestive-Disease-Center/Services/Celiac-Center/CeliacNow/NUTRAGFD/FBR/Level-2.aspx
More Reasons to Try Amaranth
• A protein powerhouse (13-14% protein!!), more than
• A COMPLETE protein, containing all essential amino
acids, including lysine
• High in fiber, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus,
potassium, zinc, and B vitamins
• Easily digested, allowing your body to make use of its
rich source of vitamins and minerals
• Some early data showing its promise as a cholesterol
Even more reasons to try amaranth and links to recipes are here:
What do you do with amaranth?
In our gluten-free community, those familiar with amaranth typically use it as a flour in gluten-free baked goods. Carol Fenster, well-known author of multiple gluten-free cookbooks (www.carolfenster.com), uses it most often in cakes, cookies, bars and the occasional pancake to boost the nutritional content of the food. She finds the taste nutty, pleasant, and not too strong and I agree.
Other ways to use amaranth seeds (we’ll call them grains from here on):
- Pop the grains (like corn) and add an extra crunch to your salad or gluten-free trail mix. Here’s a video to show you how: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sqbQDKxDyW4&list=PL8bdCoYqX-yHeElYg0VfuFui7_KELMtOv
- The grain can be added to soups, stews, casseroles, risottos, mixed with other grains or cooked as a hot cereal.
- Puffed amaranth can be eaten as a cold cereal.
- Amaranth goes well with corn, scallions and pinto beans.
- Toss amaranth into a rice cooker or pot along with rice and cook them together. Follow instructions on packaging for adding liquid, such as gluten-free labeled chicken or vegetable broth, or water, for both grains. This is what I typically do to add color and nutrition to my regular rice dish.
- Rinse grains well before cooking.
- Always drink plenty of water when you add gluten-free grains into your diet due to their high fiber content.
- To prevent cross contact, do not purchase grains from bulk bins. Purchase them in sealed packages labeled gluten-free.
- Cook all grains well and according to package directions before eating them.
Need FUN RECIPES to try amaranth?
Kristine Kidd, former food editor of Bon Appetit and gluten-free cookbook author, concocted a yummy Maple, Hazelnut, Amaranth Granola recipe - it’s a unique and tasty way to add this remarkable grain into your diet.
And here are yummy breakfast pancakes from Carol Fenster.
The simplest way to cook amaranth
Measure the grains. Rinse them thoroughly in cold water, strain them, and remove any dirt or debris. Measure the water and bring it to a boil, add grains, bring to a boil again, then reduce heat and simmer, covered tightly, stirring occasionally for ~15-20 minutes (time varies with different recipes and chefs). Drain, rinse, add salt (if desired) and eat. Most whole grains are slightly chewy when cooked. The Whole Grains Council recommends 6 cups of water per one cup of amaranth since the liquid thickens so much while cooking. Whole Foods Market suggests 3 cups of water per one cup of amaranth. Experiment!
A useful note when baking
Since amaranth absorbs water very easily, it can quickly become gummy. That’s why you always see amaranth in combination with other gluten-free flours, starches, and gums when baking. Paying close attention to the amounts and mixtures of flours is really important. Blended together properly, they can mimic the same consistency of gluten.
Where do you buy it?
Here are a few suggestions:
www.amazon.com (only purchase if labeled gluten-free)
www.bobsredmill.com (only purchase if labeled gluten-free)
www.mygerbs.com (all product lines are top 11 allergen-free, including gluten-free)
http://www.nuts.com (choose from the on-line gluten free section)
Or… a tip from Carol Fenster: Keep whole-grain amaranth in the refrigerator to grind into flour in your coffee/spice grinder, when needed.
It’s all in the label!
Wherever you buy your grain, be sure the package is labeled gluten-free. A 2010 study by Thompson, Lee, and Grace showed mean gluten levels above 20ppm in seven of 22 (32%) samples of inherently gluten-free grains, seeds, and flours NOT labeled gluten-free. The summary can be found here: http://www.glutenfreedietitian.com/contamination-of-naturally-guten-free-grains/
And the pub med abstract here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20497786
Here’s a 2009 blog from Tricia Thompson’s site that reminds us of the historical perspective on labeling of gluten-free grains.
Storage Tips (from www.nuts.com)
Store amaranth in a tightly sealed container, such as a glass jar with a rubber sealed lid. Keep it in a cool, dark, dry location or in the refrigerator. Avoid storing it near the stove, oven or dishwasher. If stored properly, amaranth can have a shelf life of up to one year.
Enjoy your amaranth!
*Amaranth leaves are nutritious and contain high levels of beta-carotene and lutein (both great for eye health). I have no experience cooking with them yet – but I will!
Disclosures: Carol Fenster and Kristine Kidd have sent me cookbooks in the past as give-aways at my retreats. MyGerbs was a 2015-2016 sponsor of my wellness retreat. Bob's Red Mill has sent samples in the past to my workshops or retreats.
USDA Dietary Guidelines, 2015
USDA National Nutrient Database: https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/6474?manu=&fgcd=
Fiber and the Gluten-Free Grains: http://www.bidmc.org/Centers-and-Departments/Departments/Digestive-Disease-Center/Services/Celiac-Center/CeliacNow/NUTRAGFD/FBR/Level-2.aspx.
Thompson, T., M. Dennis, L. A. Higgins, A. R. Lee, and M. K. Sharrett. Gluten-free diet survey: Are Americans with coeliac disease consuming recommended amounts of fibre, iron, calcium and grain foods?" J Hum Nutr Diet, 2005;18(3):163-169.