Why is Grain Amaranth not eaten much today?

Aztec and Inca civilizations consumed tons each year. Then the Spanish prohibited amaranth as a crop and as a food. Amaranth was so popular with the Aztec that they used it in religious ceremonies. To eliminate all aspects of native Aztec religion the Spaniards felt they had to remove this “food for the gods.” Amaranth has never recuperated from being marginalized to that degree.

Ironically cacao was used as a symbol of high status and was potentially related to deities, especially in the Costa Sur area of Guatemala during the Teotihuacan era here. But the Spaniards did not try to prohibit cacao because they could make money from the seeds. Then Carl Linnaeus gave cacao the scientific designation Theobroma cacao; in Greek Theos broma means food of the gods.

 

From what I have read, I consider amaranth seed and amaranth leaves to be one of the single most healthy plants of Mesoamerica. It is sad that I did not read enough about amaranth until I was 71 years old. Books on the Maya foods are over-focused on foods of the Peten lowlands. Amaranth is more a food of other (higher elevation) eco-systems of Guatemala and especially in Mexico.

Most discussions of amaranth in Guatemala today list it was a weed and a planta Silvestre. Virtually all books on amaranth of Central Mexico are titled “Manual de Malezas….” “Manual of Weeds…”

There are many species of amaranto; at least one is toxic: Amarantus hispidus

 

Bledo is well known in Rabinal, Baja Verapaz

Although I got to know amaranth more in the central highlands, when I was in Rabinal, Baja Verapaz on the November 1st holidays (2016), I found several species or varieties of amaranth, both in house gardens and especially all around graves in the cemeteries.

Several species of Amaranth in Mesoamerica
Even more species in Peru and adjacent South America

Amaranthus cruentus and Amaranthus hypochondriacus are native to Mexico, Guatemala and probably also adjacent countries. Amaranthus caudatus is considered a native of South America but it would be useful for archaeologists and botanists to search for documentation, yea or nay, that this species may also have been present in Mesoamerica before the Spanish brought crops from Peru to Mexico and Guatemala.

All too often a discussion stops at the words “native to Peru…” but does not continue “however reached Mesoamerica thousands of years ago and was raised by the Aztec, Maya and their neighbors…” Scholars in Mesoamerica do indeed like to know where a plant was first present, but what counts is which plants were in Guatemala and Mexico before the Spanish arrived. This is vastly more important than the single sentence that the plant was native a million years ago to South America.

Fray Francisco Ximenez noted there were tres diferencias de ella: unos bledos espinosos, otros hoja ancha y otros colorados… So I would not limit the “Guatemalan species” to just one or two.

Amaranth seed is not recommended to be eaten by pregnant women.

Be sure to also check for the situation for the leaves, bledo. I eat freshly cut bledo when it is brought to the office from Sacatepéquez (since it is not sold in supermarkets). I eat amaranth seed every morning for breakfast (since it is sold in at least one supermarket, Supermercados La Torre). We hope that Paiz will now begin to offer it as well. But every food, such as peanuts, are to be avoided if you have certain conditions. So always double-check before you eat any new food.

 

Some Amaranth species can produce a dye colorant

Many modern discussions of amaranth indicate that it can produce a red dye colorant (by the Hopi Indians of North America). So Amaranth can be added to Olga Reiche’s comprehensive book on natural colorants used in Guatemala. Amaranth is also not listed by Hideo Kohima, Raul Ponto or Mendez: authors of three other leading discussions of colorants in Mexico and Guatemala. Our team at FLAAR has prepared lists of all the dye colorant plants which can be added for new second editions. We are especially interested in doing a coffee table version on the plants, with high resolution photographs of the plants and especially their flowers.

Amaranth is considered a medicinal plant

There were no chemical drug companies 2000 years ago and no pharmacies. Local people had to depend on local plants for medicine. We estimate that more than 400 plants of Guatemala could have been used for medicine. Since Mexico has much more territory and different eco-systems, there are surely even more medicinal plants in Mexico.

Many articles mention amaranth as a medicinal plant. However be sure that you know whether or not you may be allergic.

Good places to find Amaranth in Guatemala

One thesis mentions Cachiqueles, Kekchies y Tzutuiles (Tello 2003:1), but we found lots of amaranth in the Achi Mayan area of Rabinal, Baja Verapaz.

Amaranth is relatively easy to grow

Even when it is dry, Amaranth will re-sprout when rains come back (Jefferson Institute). And in general, amaranth is more drought tolerant than most other edible crop plants (Kauffman and Weber 1990).

There are three common species that produce lots of grain (most of these were grown in Mesoamerica). There are many more species from South America.

Amaranth can be grown in Missouri and many other parts of USA

An informative publication by the Jefferson Institute is based mostly on amaranth cultivation in Missouri (where I lived as a child before wandering down to Mexico at age 16 and staying in Mesoamerica for over 54 years!).

Amaranthus as a frilly garden flower

Amaranthus cruentus is kind of a pale reddish color
Amaranthus hypochondriacus has much darker color
Amaranthus caudatus is a red which is hard to describe: but definitely not as dark as its relative but more colorful than A. cruentus.

Amaranth seeds are more healthy than maize or wheat

Technically amaranth produces a seed, but it is called grain amaranth, since its food value is comparable to maize and wheat.

The nutritional value of amaranth protein is very good. Protein efficiency ratios (PER) have ranged from 1.5 to 2.0 (corrected to casein 2.5) for cooked grain, and its total digestibility is about 90 percent. Amaranth protein, at a biological value of 75, comes closer than any other grain protein to the perfect balance of essential amino acids, which theoretically would score 100 on the nutritionists' scale of protein quality based on amino acid composition. By contrast, com scores about 44, wheat 60, soybean 68, and cow's milk 72. When amaranth flour is mixed with com flour, the combination almost reaches the perfect 100 score, because the amino acids that are deficient in one are abundant in the other. (National Research Council 1984:35).

In addition to Grain Amaranth
There is also Vegetable Amaranth

Although most discussion of amaranth is on the edible seeds, the leaves are also edible. Botanists call this “vegetable amaranth.” In Guatemala the leaf of amaranth is called bledo. There are some species which are more usable for producing edible leaves; that said, Amaranthus cruentus also can be used for edible leaves.

Amaranth leaves are as healthy as spinach

The nutritional quality of amaranth greens is similar to that of other leafy vegetables. However, because their dry-matter content is often high, an equivalent amount of fresh amaranth often provides from 2 to 3 times the amount of nutrients found in other vegetables (see Table 3). In mineral content, notably iron and calcium, amaranth greens rank particularly well when measured against other potherbs. (National Research Council 1984:43).

But be sure to boil the leaves before you eat them. And with any plant part that you eat, it is essential that you read the limitations and what potentially undesired side effects can occur. For example, I have made a provisional decision not to initiate eating chia seeds.But I can see why many people would enjoy and benefit from eating chia seeds.

That said, amaranth seeds are gluten-free, so if you are gluten intolerant amaranth is a potential option.

Amaranth is a fab food (trendy)

Amaranth is available in the health food department of some supermarkets. I was pleasantly surprised to find amaranto seed in the modern supermarket one block from the FLAAR office in Guatemala City. And of course you can buy Amaranth seed on-line: www.BobsRedMill.com is one example.

However Bob’s Red Mill “10 Grain Hot Cereal” does not have any amaranth or quinoa in it (nonetheless I eat the 8 grain or 10 grain cereal every morning). Often the store near my office in St Louis.

Amaranth has immense PR potential

Amaranth grows fast and the leaves can be harvested after only a few weeks. Seeds of course take longer but in general this is a fast growing plant. Although our focus is on Mesoamerica in general and Guatemala in particular, several species of amaranth were introduced into India and Africa. A study by a research team in USA cites the fact that “thousands of tons of amaranth are sold in town markets of parts of western Africa” (including Amaranthus cruentus). Yet in Guatemala not enough is produced to even show up in worldwide production statistics. Yes, amaranth is raised, eaten, and sold in stores. I can buy it at modern supermarkets near the FLAAR office. But you really have to look for it.

Summary

Botanical studies over and over again state that amaranth seeds are better than maize, wheat and rice. Yet rice is the main staple of not only Asia but much of Latin America. Wheat is a staple in much of the world and maize is a major crop across USA and down through Latin America.

Amaranth is usually found primarily as a weed, or in gardens in several areas of Guatemala. Actually it is one of the most colorful of edible plants of Guatemala, surpassed only by fruits of the passionflower vine (whose flowers are awesome).

It is ironic that amaranth is now grown around the world more than in its homeland of Mexico and Guatemala.

Glossary

Bledo is the leaf; Amaranto (in Spanish) is the seed. But bledo, even though standing for the leaf, can refer to the entire plant.

 

Posted May 31, 2017after doing macro photography of the tiny flowers of two species of amaranth raised from seed here in the ethnobotanical garden of FLAAR.

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