Amaranth: A Nutritious Gluten-Free Grain Substitute

One of the many types of amaranth plants
One of the many types of amaranth plants | Source

A Useful Grain Substitute

In North American society, wheat is the dominant grain used by many families. Rice, corn and oats are also popular. There are many other grains and grain-like foods available, however. These foods provide an interesting variety of tastes and nutrients and make great alternatives to the usual choices.

Kamut, spelt, emmer and einkorn are different varieties of wheat. Rye, barley, sorghum, teff and triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye) are additional grain choices. Quinoa (pronounced "keenwa"), buckwheat and amaranth are three grain alternatives whose seeds are often used like grains.

Amaranth is a tasty and versatile food that is also gluten-free. Some people avoid gluten by choice and others avoid it by necessity. People with celiac disease must avoid gluten because it damages the lining of their small intestine. Amaranth is a great food choice for anyone, however, whether or not they are following a gluten-free diet.

Amaranthus caudataus, Love-lies-bleeding or Tassel flower; the red color is due to pigments called betacyanins
Amaranthus caudataus, Love-lies-bleeding or Tassel flower; the red color is due to pigments called betacyanins | Source

The Amaranth Plant

Amaranth belongs to the genus Amaranthus. The genus is the first part of the scientific name of a plant and the species is the second part of the name. There are fifty to seventy species of Amaranthus. The exact number depends on the classification scheme that's used. Amaranthus is widespread and lives in many different countries.

The leaves, stems, roots or seeds of some species are used for food. A few species are used as ornamental plants. Others are used to produce a red dye. Some are considered to be weeds.

Amaranth isn't closely related to grains. Unlike grains, which have long and narrow leaves, amaranth plants have broad leaves. Grains belong to the plant family called the Poaceae or Gramineae. Amaranth belongs to the family Amaranthaceae.

Flowers

Amaranthus flowers are white, green, orange-brown, red-brown or red in color, depending on the species. They usually occur in spikes, which sometimes hang from the flower stems. The seeds are tiny, but the spikes of a single plant produce many seeds. Some people grow their own amaranth at home, which can be enjoyable, but it's time consuming to extract the tiny seeds from the flowers.

Not all species of amaranth have red flowers. This is Amaranthus retroflexus.
Not all species of amaranth have red flowers. This is Amaranthus retroflexus. | Source

Amaranth is a fast-growing plant and has been used by humans since ancient times. Archaeological evidence indicates that the seeds were gathered as early as 4000 BC.

Uses of Amaranth Seeds

Historically, amaranth has been most popular in South America, Asia and Africa. Now other parts of the world are discovering its benefits. The seeds are cream to brown in color, depending on the species. In some countries amaranth seeds are popped like popcorn. Honey or molasses is often added to the popped seeds to make a candy. The seeds are also ground into a flour and used to make a dough or a gruel. A gruel is made by boiling a flour in water or milk.

In North America, amaranth is sold as a whole "grain" that's ready to cook in boiling water or pop in a hot pan. It's also available in puffed form as a breakfast cereal or is incorporated with other grains in gluten-free cereals. The seeds are sometimes sprouted and are used to make beer. In addition, amaranth is present in breads sold by specialist bakeries and is sold as a flour for home baking. The flour is good in recipes for bread, cakes, muffins, pancakes, and other foods. Amaranth seeds have a distinctive and interesting taste. They have a nutty flavor, which I enjoy. The flavor is noticeable but not overpowering.

Flour made from the seeds of the amaranth plant
Flour made from the seeds of the amaranth plant | Source

Leaves, Roots and a Dye

Amaranth leaves are a popular vegetable in some countries. They are often used like spinach In salads. They are also used in stir fry recipes, soups, stews and curries. Some people enjoy eating cooked amaranth root.

A red pigment is extracted from the flowers of some amaranth plants and used as a food dye. The dye is used to color corn dough, alcoholic beverages or other foods and drinks.

The artificial chemical known as amaranth dye has a color that resembles amaranth flowers but otherwise has no connection to the plant. In the United States, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has banned the use of the artificial dye because it's a suspected carcinogen.

How to Cook Amaranth

Nutritional Benefits of the Seeds

Amaranth seeds are a good source of protein. Depending on the species, the seeds contain between thirteen and eighteen percent protein. This is often (but not always) higher than the percentage in true grains. Amaranth protein contains a significant quantity of the amino acid lysine. The amount of lysine in grains is very limited.

Amaranth seeds are also rich in minerals. They are an excellent source of manganese, a good source of magnesium, phosphorus, iron, selenium, copper, zinc and calcium and a moderately good source of potassium. They also contain a good quantity of vitamin B6, folate and fiber.

The seeds are lower in oil than many other edible seeds. Oil is extracted from amaranth seeds, however, and is used in cosmetics. There is some evidence that amaranth oil in the diet lowers the level of LDL cholesterol (the so-called "bad" cholesterol) in the blood. This idea needs to be explored further.

Amaranth seeds are small, as can be seen in this comparison of puffed amaranth (left) and puffed rice (right).
Amaranth seeds are small, as can be seen in this comparison of puffed amaranth (left) and puffed rice (right). | Source

Nutrients in Amaranth Leaves

Young amaranth leaves are often used as a vegetable. They are an excellent source of vitamin C and of vitamin A in the form of beta-carotene. Our bodies change beta-carotene into the form of vitamin A that we need. Since beta-carotene is fat soluble, eating a small quantity of a healthy oil with the leaves will help the nutrient to be absorbed. The leaves are also a good source of vitamin B6, folate and riboflavin.

Amaranth leaves are healthiest when used as a raw salad green. The amount of vitamin C decreases when the leaves are cooked. In addition, boiling the leaves causes water-soluble nutrients (vitamin C and the B family vitamins) to leach into the cooking water.

Like the seeds, the leaves are rich in minerals, including magnanese, calcium, magnesium, potassium, potassium, and iron. They also contain copper.

How to Pop Amaranth at Home

Gluten and Celiac Disease

Gluten is a protein complex found in certain grains. In people with celiac disease, the ingestion of gluten leads to inflammation of the lining of the small intestine. In addition, it causes flattening of the villi located on the lining. Villi are tiny folds which absorb nutrients from digested food. When villi are absent, the absorption of nutrients decreases dramatically.

As a result of the damage to the small intestine, a person with celiac disease may experience a wide variety of symptoms. Continued inflammation caused by gluten exposure increases the risk of intestinal cancer. When the diet is free of gluten, however, the inflammation generally disappears and the villi are regenerated.

Since amaranth is both gluten-free and a versatile grain substitute, it's a great food for people who have celiac disease. In baking, amaranth flour can be used on its own or mixed with other flours that lack gluten. Gluten-free recipes often use a combination of flours and other ingredients to approximate the effect of gluten, which gives doughs their elasticity.

How to Identify Wild Amaranth

Foraging for Wild Amaranth

Amaranth is cultivated in some areas, but it's also a wild plant. In my part of the world wild amaranth is known as pigweed. All parts of the plant are edible, but if you intend to do foraging in the wild you need to follow some essential rules.

  • Be absolutely positive that you have identified a plant correctly and that it's edible. Look at several reference sources and photos and make sure that they apply to the plants in your area. Identify a plant by its scientific name, since sometimes different plants can have the same common name. The name "pigweed" applies to other plants beside amaranth, for example.
  • If there is any doubt about a plant's identity, don't eat the plant.
  • Plants are often easier to identify when they are mature and flowering.
  • Collect the plant in a clean area away from pollution and pesticides.
  • Never remove all the plants from an area. Leave some to reproduce and spread.
  • As you forage for wild plants, try to do as little damage to the habitat as possible.

The Grain of the Future

Amaranth is a nutritious and tasty food for people on a gluten-free diet, vegans, vegetarians and everybody else. It's sometimes called the "grain of the future" because of its nutritional benefits. Foods containing amaranth may be found in some supermarkets, but the best choice of products is generally available at health food markets. It's worth trying this interesting grain substitute and considering adding it to the diet, whether or not you are gluten intolerant.

© 2013 Linda Crampton

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Comments 34 comments

billybuc profile image

billybuc 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

I've never even heard of it. I had no idea it existed. Very interesting information, Alicia!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you, Bill. I very much appreciate your comments, especially so soon after I publish a hub! Amaranth isn't well known yet, except by people who are gluten intolerant. It's a very worthy grain substitute, though.


Mhatter99 profile image

Mhatter99 3 years ago from San Francisco

First I've heard of this. Thank you for the enlightenment.


aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

I had never seen the plant or heard about popping the seeds, but I have had amaranth flakes, which is a fabulous breakfast cereal. The flavor is most unusual, a bit stronger than what many people are likely used to, but I need to get more. It has been a while. Maybe I can get some flour, and make some lovely muffins. Thanks for the reminder, Alicia.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you for the visit and the comment, Martin.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Deb. I eat flakes made of amaranth mixed with other substances, and they are tasty. I'll have to look out for flakes containing only amaranth. Thanks for the visit.


Claudia Tello profile image

Claudia Tello 3 years ago from Mexico

I live in Mexico and strangely enough I have never seen Amaranth flour. How can this be!!!!? Nevertheless, I have eaten amaranth many times as a cereal with yoghurt and fruit, in energetic bars (which have a good protein content by the way) and in baked goods as an added cereal. It doesn't have a particularly nice taste but I love it because it really has an immediate positive effect on digestive health. Great that you wrote about it!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Claudia. Thank you very much for the comment. I like the taste of amaranth, but it does taste unusual. I can understand why it wouldn't appeal to everybody!


wabash annie profile image

wabash annie 3 years ago from Colorado Front Range

I'm always happy to find out about a gluten-free product. Thanks for the heads-up on this one!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, wabash annie. Thanks for the visit. I think that amaranth is a great addition to a gluten-free diet!


drbj profile image

drbj 3 years ago from south Florida

Since amaranth appears to be so healthful, Alicia, I'll have to look for amaranth products in the market the next time I shop. Thanks for the heads up.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, drbj. Thanks for the visit. I hope you enjoy amaranth if you try it!


BlossomSB profile image

BlossomSB 3 years ago from Victoria, Australia

I use quinoa, but I've never tried amaranth, although I've heard of it. I must try it. Popping it sounds like fun.


Eiddwen profile image

Eiddwen 3 years ago from Wales

Interesting;beautiful and useful.

Voted up and enjoy your day.

Eddy.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Blossom. Popping amaranth is fun! I like quinoa, too. Thanks for the visit.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you for the comment and the vote, Eddy. Have a great day too!


unknown spy profile image

unknown spy 3 years ago from Neverland - where children never grow up.

looks like a Cat's Tail plants..


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Yes, I know what you mean, unknown spy! The flower spikes do resemble cats' tails. Thnks for the comment.


teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 3 years ago

I had no idea this plan offered so much to the human body. Will have to look this up next time I am at the health food store. Thanks.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks for the visit, Dianna. Amaranth is worth investigating!


vespawoolf profile image

vespawoolf 3 years ago from Peru, South America

Amaranth is common here in Peru and although we eat it cooked and added to soups, I didn't know it could be popped at home! They do sell puffed amaranth here to eat with yogurt and fruit. I wonder if I could pop quinoa at home, too? Very interesting. Voted up and shared!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thanks for the vote and the share, vespawolf! I eat puffed amaranth with yogurt too. I've never tried popping quinoa but I've read about people doing it. Amaranth and quinoa seem to be versatile grains!


thumbi7 profile image

thumbi7 16 months ago from India

We eat a lot of amaranth and I love amaranth preparations

Great article about its usefulness

Voted up and shared


Vellur profile image

Vellur 16 months ago from Dubai

Great information about Amaranth. Learned a lot about Amaranth and will incorporate it into my meals. Great hub, voted up.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 16 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Thank you very much, thumbi7. I love amaranth, too! Thanks for the comment, vote and share.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 16 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, Vellur. Thank you for the comment and the vote. I appreciate your visit very much.


Nikki D. Felder profile image

Nikki D. Felder 16 months ago from Castle Hayne, N.C.

Grain substitute, huh? Willing to give it a try!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 16 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

It's definitely worth trying, Nikki!


RTalloni profile image

RTalloni 16 months ago from the short journey

Thanks much for this reminder! I have used amaranth in the past, but had forgotten about it. And wow, who knew the plants were so amazing. This hub is a great reference on a useful plant.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 16 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, RTalloni. Thank you very much for the comment. I think that amaranth is definitely a useful plant!


ChitrangadaSharan profile image

ChitrangadaSharan 16 months ago from New Delhi, India

Great hub about Amarnath, very informative and useful!

It is indeed very useful substitute for gluten sensitive people. It is grown and consumed in India as well.

Thanks for sharing this valuable information in your hub!


The Dirt Farmer profile image

The Dirt Farmer 16 months ago from United States

I grow the red amaranth for the birds. I've never noticed it in the grocery stores here in the US, but you've made me curious!


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 16 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, ChitrangadaSharan. Thank you very much for the comment and for sharing the information about amaranth in India.


AliciaC profile image

AliciaC 16 months ago from British Columbia, Canada Author

Hi, The Dirt Farmer. I generally buy my amaranth in health food stores. At least where I live in Canada, they always have it.

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