The Next Superfood Grain (And It's Gluten-Free!)

You're not alone if you're not exactly sure what amaranth is or haven't cooked with it before. This ancient grain-a staple of the Aztecs-was nearly forgotten about, but amaranth is now having a long-overdue resurgence, primed to be the next big superfood (and for good reason!).

As important as corn and beans are to the Aztecs, amaranth was among the first solid foods given to Aztec babies, and an integral part of prayer and religious rituals-until the Spanish conquistadores deemed such practices sacrilegious and banned them entirely.

Thereafter, the cultivation of amaranth more or less came to a complete standstill-relegated, says Florisa Barquera, M.D., a member of the nutrition advisory board of Herbalife and the Mexican Academy for Obesity, to small, mountainous regions of Mexico and the Andes and virtually grown in secret.

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Now, however, amaranth is experiencing a sort of renaissance in Mexico, not only for the role it has in the country's history and heritage, but also because research has shown the grain to be a real nutritional powerhouse.

In the U.S., amaranth has been steadily climbing the superfood ranks and although it is still relatively under the radar compared to its ancient grain peer quinoa, more people are becoming aware of amaranth's extraordinary nutritional value.

The grain is not only gluten-free, but like quinoa and spelt, amaranth also packs a real protein punch, containing nearly 14 percent protein, according to Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for the Whole Grains Council, which is featuring amaranth as its September Grain of the Month. That compares favorably to quinoa, which also has a 14 percent protein content.

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Amaranth also has a good balance of essential amino acids, particularly lysine, which is usually very low in grains, notes Harriman, but is significant in amaranth, as well as quinoa and buckwheat. Essential amino acids, including lysine, are the building blocks for the proteins that the body needs, explains Janet Brill, Ph.D., a nutritionist and fitness expert.

That said, the grain lacks amino acids leucine and threonine, notes Brill. So she recommends pairing amaranth with other foods that supply these amino acids, such as avocados or sunflower seeds, in order to get the full protein punch. And, she says, it's ultimately all about balance, so "as long as you are combining a variety of foods through the day and in your diet, you'll get all the amino acids you need. You don't need to be consuming them all at once in the same meal."

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Amaranth is a low-fat, low-sodium, high-fiber food that's also rich in vitamins (particularly vitamin B), as well as iron and calcium. Research shows that the grain has great therapeutic effects, according to Barquera-particularly with respect to lowering cholesterol levels in animal studies. Other animal research has shown that amaranth also reduces blood glucose levels.

Today, amaranth is becoming more readily available throughout the U.S., and it's quickly becoming a favorite with star chefs like Marcus Samuelsson, owner of New York City restaurants Red Rooster Harlem, Ginny's Supper Club and American Table Café and Bar. "For such a little seed, amaranth is extremely nutrient dense, full of protein and vitamins," Samuelsson says. "I love to roast it and add to salads for an unexpected crunch, throw it in stir fries, mix it with quinoa, vinaigrette and vegetables for a healthy version of 'pasta' salad, and use it in veggie burger patties. You can also make desserts with amaranth, like pudding. It's a very versatile ingredient, which works well for internationally inspired cooking."

Want to give amaranth a tasty test drive? Try this healthy recipe:

Creamy Cannellini Bean and Amaranth Soup
Recipe courtesy of Lori Sobelson, from "Bob's Red Mill Cookbook: Whole & Healthy Grains for Every Meal of the Day," provided by the Whole Grains Council

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 large leeks, white parts only, sliced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup amaranth
2 cups vegetable stock
1 bay leaf
1 cup tomato paste
2 cups cooked cannellini beans, rinsed and drained, divided
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
1 teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Heat olive oil in a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add leeks and cook, stirring frequently, until golden and soft, about five minutes. Add garlic and cook for one more minute, then add amaranth grains, stock, bay leaf and tomato paste and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer. Cover and cook for 30 minutes. Remove the bay leaf from the amaranth mixture, add 1 cup of beans, and use a handheld immersion blender to puree in the pot until smooth. (Alternatively, puree the beans in a food processor, add the amaranth mixture-working in batches if necessary-and puree again until smooth, then return to the pot.) Stir in remaining beans, herbs and salt. Warm gently just to heat through. If desired, thin the soup with additional stock (heat before adding to avoid overcooking the soup). Season with additional salt and pepper to taste.

MORE: Another Amaranth Recipe to Try

- by Savita Iyer-Ahrestani

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