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Amaranths

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BOTANICAL CLASSIFICATION

There are three species of grain amaranthus: Amaranthus hypochondriacus, Amaranthus cruentus and Amaranthus caudatus . There are many varieties within these 3 species which are white, yellow, or pink seeded.


HISTORY

Amaranthus hypochondriacusAt the beginning of the 1970’s, John Robinson, an expert in nutrition at the University of Michigan, realising the continued reduction in the value of our foodstuffs decided to undertake a systematic evaluation of all the traditional foods of all the peoples of the planet. He was to compare the archaeological discoveries relating to feeding customs of prehistoric peoples and to compare them with the practices of certain peoples still practicing the art of hunting and gathering. Thus he discovered that once the hunter-gatherers settled and turned to agriculture the choice and diversity of their diet reduced dramatically. The diversity was further reduced once the type of agriculture turned from subsistence to the intensive production of a few alimentary species such as wheat, maize, and rice destined for the urban markets.

Convinced that this reduction in diversity was harmful to human health John Robinson set off in search of traditional foods that could be re-integrated into the modern diet. After many years of research he came to the conclusion that amaranthus, a very little known plant of the Americas, was one of the thirty alimentary species offering the promise of an improvement to the human diet. Since the giants of the food industry turned a deaf ear, he presented, in 1972, his dossier on the work relating to the Amaranthus to Robert Rodale, a pioneer of organic agriculture in the USA and editor of the revue " Organic Gardening ". Robert Rodale immediately saw the enormous potential of the Amaranthus on the nutritional level, and so in 1974 he made development of the Amaranthus the priority objective of his research in Pennsylvania.

Following the Rodale Institute, the National Academy of Sciences in USA evaluated this plant, particularly in its work published in 1989, “Lost Crops of the Incas”. This collective work gathered together the results of 600 researchers in 56 countries into the traditional food species holding out most hope for the nutritional future of mankind. The researchers of the Rodale Institute had many questions to answer. Traditionally how was Amaranthus cultivated and prepared? How widespread was its cultivation? What remained of its genetic diversity in the diverse species? What was its nutritional value? How could it be integrated in the modern diet?

Two species of Amaranthus, namely Amaranthus cruentus and Amaranthus hypocondriacus were cultivated in Central America, whilst the peoples of Latin America developed and cultivated only one species, namely Amaranthus caudatus.

Amaranthus is still grown in Central America : one can still find it pampered by a few gardeners in the famous " Chinampas ", the floating gardens of Mexico , protected by the Mexican government. These wonderful canals are the remains of a huge network that supplied food to the 200000 people of the Aztec capital. At the time of the European invasion of Mexico Amaranthus, which in the " Nahuatl " language was called " huautli ", was one of the five major harvests collected as tribute over the 17 provinces of the Empire. The other four were maize, peppers, beans and a species of sage the seeds of which were highly nutritious and were used to make refreshing drinks.

The cultivation of Amaranthus dates from far back in this land, as evidenced by the discovery of Amaranthus seeds in the caves of Tehuacan Puebla in Mexico from 5500 years ago. It is true that there is some uncertainty as to the exact date of these discoveries. Nevertheless they allow us to see the broad outline of the alimentary evolution of different peoples. It was at this period that certain peoples began to devote part of their energy, formerly devoted exclusively to hunting and gathering, to the practice of horticulture. It is believed that as long ago as 5000 years these peoples began to master the cultivation of squash, peppers and Amaranthus. These cultivations represented about 6% of their food. The percentage 1500 years later rose to 14% thanks to the progressive domestication of Maize, beans and gourds and thanks to the extension of the growing season of Amaranthus, namely from the beginning of spring.

AmaranthsThe cultivation of Amaranthus was at its height during the Aztec Empire. For the Aztec people the Amaranthus represented a value on the nutritional level, the therapeutic and the ritual.

On the nutritional level the Amaranthus entered into the preparation of numerous dishes: " huauquiltamalli ", a tamale made out of puffed Amaranthus seeds then ground into a flour, " cauhquilmolli ’, a delicious sauce prepared with the leaves of the Amaranthus, " tzaollaxcalli ", tortillas made from the puffed seeds of Amaranthus and mixed with a syrup made from the sap of a cactus. In the markets there were drinks offered for sale made from the ground or puffed grains of Amaranthus.

On the therapeutic plain the Aztec healers used both the seeds and the leaves of Amaranthus to remedy several health problems.

On the religious level, the Amaranthus was deemed a very sacred plant. During certain religious festivals, little figurines fashioned from Amaranthus dough were offered up to the Pantheon of the Aztec Gods and were sometimes consumed as part of religious ritual recalling the Catholic rite of the Eucharist.

When newborn babies were ritually bathed and named four days after birth, they were offered miniature reproductions, fashioned from this same Amaranthus dough, of their future attributes, bows, arrows, kitchen utensils. Certain figurines were also used in the healing rituals.

The sacred value of the Amaranthus was sufficient explanation for the fact that its cultivation was suppressed directly and indirectly by Spanish Christianity wishing, as it did, to uproot the old heretical religion. The writings of Catholic priests of the epoch bear witness to their horror of the Aztec ritual such as the sharing of these figurines consecrated by the Aztec people believing they were eating the flesh and bones of the gods.

In 1525, the Catholic church threw itself into a campaign systematically to destroy the ancient pre-Colombian religious practices, and six years later a bishop brimming over with zeal claimed to have destroyed 20 000 idols and 500 places of worship. Those who continued to practice the Aztec religion were either whipped, or reduced to forced labour in the monasteries or they were executed. When certain gardeners defied the interdiction upon growing Amaranthus in their gardens they were punished by having their hands removed. The Indian population estimated in 1519 to number 11 million was by 1540 reduced to 6.5 million, victim of brutal exploitation and European disease.

Amaranthus hypochondriacusCertain historical writings still mention in 1577 the Amaranthus as being one of the four major alimentary plants. Four centuries later, the Amaranthus has completely disappeared from the Mexican diet save for certain confectionery made from the seeds of Amaranthus mixed with molasses and called “Alegria”. These constitute the last vestige of the epic of the Amaranthus left in Central America, the dusk of some six thousand years.

In the Andes, the other centre of domestication of the Amaranthus (Amaranthus caudatus), the Indians of the Quechua culture cultivated the “kiwicha”, the magnificent Amaranthus called “Pony Tail” well known by European gardeners for centuries. The Incas, unhappily, had no written account and we lack any detailed information about the exact role of this plant in their civilisation. It would seem, however, that the Amaranthus was of less cultural importance to the Incas than it was to the Aztecs. In the Inca civilisation it was in fact the maize, which was the food of ritual and the Quinoa, was the basic food source. Nevertheless, the cultivation of “kiwicha” has persisted right up until the present and in particular amongst the Indians of the high plateau and those of the tropical forest. Thus, although the Amaranthus is not widely grown it would seem that the genetic diversity has remained relatively intact in Latin America.

On the high plateau, the Quecha peasants generally grow the Amaranthus together with other plants such as maize and Quinoa, and this is mainly in the mountaneous zone between 2700 m and 3500 m above sealevel. The Quecha have practiced this companion cultivation along very sophisticated lines. These practices protect the plants against all manner of imbalances and predators.

As to the method of preparation, the Quecha families prepared, exactly as the Aztec peoples and their descendants, confiserie made with puffed grains mixed with molasses, which they called “turrones”. The villagers sometimes eat the puffed grains directly and they are considered to be a tonic beneficial to the old. For breakfast they prepare flour from this puffed grain, which they call “mas’ka”. They prepare, also, from fermented seeds, the “chicha”, a beer drunk at festivals and offered to Mother Earth.

In Peru, in the region of Huancavalica, the peasants use the stem of the Amaranthus for its high calcium content. After harvesting the grain panicles they burn the stems, then collect the cinders and mix them with water in order to soak the maize destined to make the dough for the “tamales”.

This use of the stems of the Amaranthus is not fortuitous and it demonstrates the wisdom of ancient peoples. It is a fact that when maize was introduced into many countries in the world, some peoples became wholly dependant upon it eating it without regard to the eventual alimentary deficiencies of the diet. These peoples who adopted maize as their sole food source became susceptible to the disease pellagra, which causes lesions of the skin and a general degeneration both physical and mental.

However, in the Americas, the birthplace of maize, there was no pellagra. The supposedly primitive cultivators of the New World had in fact developed a sophisticated technique and anticipated the discoveries of modern science.

The Mayas, Aztecs and peoples of North America had intuitively perceived that cooking the maize in a water containing cinders greatly improved the supply of vitamins to be had from the maize. The maize reacted chemically with the calcium in the cinders and released certain amino acids. The calcium freed the niacin, which previously was chemically bound in, thus permitting its assimilation by the human body. It is thus that the “posole” is still made and this method of alcalinisation of maize is still alive in Peru in the method of the use of cinders of the stems of Amaranthus to make tamales.

The Quechuas people in Southern Peru and in Ecuador use wild Amaranthus using the brightly coloured flowers for ritual and for therapeutic treatments. In the region of Cuzco, the flowers of airampo (Amaranthus hybridus) are used in an infusion to treat toothache and fevers. During certain festivals, the red flowers of the Amaranthus are used by the Quechua women to colour their skin and they are also used to colour the “chicha” beer. This use of the dye is also practiced by the Hopi Indians in the southwest of North America. The Hopis use a variety of Amaranthus, which is nowadays known as Hopi Red Dye to dye bread called “piki”.

It is at the antipodes of the Hopi, namely in India, Nepal and Mongolia that one nowadays finds grain Amaranthus grown as a crop. Whereas in Latin America and in Central America the grain Amaranthus has more or less fallen in the oubliette of history, the people at the antipodes greeted its arrival as a gift of God: the Hindus have named it “rajgira”, the grain of kings and “ramdana”, the grain sent by the gods.

Amaranths nutritionThe grain Amaranthus is so deeply implanted in all the countries of the Himalayas that the ethno botanists are hard put to determine the period that it was introduced. In certain semi mountainous areas of North-west India the Amaranthus spreads its scintillating colour over as much as half of the non-irrigated land. The Gurung people as well as others in Nepal have completely adopted the Amaranthus in their high valley, as well as a lot of peoples in Bhutan, in the hills of Southern India, the plains of Mongolia and in Ethiopia.

The peoples of the Himalayas pop the seeds that they then mix with honey in order to make delicious pastries called " laddoos " exactly as did the Mayas and Aztecs of old.

Daniel K.Early, professor of Anthropology at the University of Oregon, is one of the pioneers of research into the Amaranthus. After studying the few areas of Mexico in 1975 and then in 1985 the few Latin American countries where the Amaranthus still grew he then turned his steps towards the mountains of Nepal where the Amaranthus flourished for centuries, perhaps for thousands of years.

He studied the methods of cultivation as well as the culinary and therapeutic uses. One day whilst drinking tea with a Sherpa farmer, the latter told him that he used the seeds of the Amaranthus to right a number of ills including a stomach disorder called “gano”. The following day, whilst visiting a monk in a Buddhist temple he was told that the seeds of the Amaranthus were used to make pills to treat a number of health problems including this particular stomach problem.

He was filled with enthusiasm at this discovery because it corroborated certain therapeutic uses of the Amaranthus in Peru, but especially because it confirmed the recent discovery during research of the very high concentration of vitamin E in the embryos of the Amaranthus seed. Vitamin E is reputed to fortify the immuno system, and so the wisdom of all these ancient peoples of three continents is revealed in the method used to prepare the food, namely the puffing up of the seeds. This method is also used for making “popcorn”.

The popping in fact preserves the total integrity of the embryo in the seeds. Moreover, according to the traditions of the peasants of Nepal, Mexico and Peru, this would seem to be the ideal first steps in the preparation of the Amaranthus grain. In fact when the grain is prepared avoiding this popping of the seed, it can exhibit a certain bitterness.

From ancient times the Amaranthus has been considered both as a sacred and as a medicinal plant. In the pharmacopoeia of the peoples of North America, it was considered a sovereign cure for diarrhoea, dysentery and for haemorrhages, both internal and external.

The Amaranthus is to be found in numerous legends and in numerous rituals in the cultures of India, China and Japan: it is reputed to bestow good health and longevity. In Greek mythology, the Amaranthus (from the Greek Amaranthos, “flower which does not wither”), is the symbol of immortality. Warriors wearing a garland on their heads were deemed to be invisible! It is even to be found in the “Guirlande de Julie” where its beauty is praised in a short madrigal:
" I am the flower of love, named Amaranthus ; Which comes to worship Julie’s beautiful eyes.
Roses, draw back, I have the name of immortality ; I, alone, may crown the gods ".

The planetary epic of the immortal Amaranthus remains steeped in mystery. How can it be that for many centuries now Asia, and in particular, India, has been the principal centre of cultivation? Numerous researchers have grappled with this enigma, but it seems clear that the centres of the genetic origins of the grain Amaranthus lie in the Americas.


NUTRITION

Amaranthus grain contains a high level of protein, between 16%-18%, much more than the cereals of the Poaceae family. However, this high level of protein is much more important to the countries of the Third World, owing to their demographic growth and the desertification of many areas, than to the rich countries which often suffer from a diet too high in protein. On the other hand the protein found in Amaranthus is one of the most balanced known and this fact alone is sufficient to consider the Amaranthus as one of the most promising plants for the nutrition of mankind.

If the ideal protein (according to the values of the FAO) is placed at 100, it is very interesting to compare the values of the most widely used proteins. The protein in Amaranthus (as well as in Quinoa) reaches a value of 75, corn reaches a value of 44, wheat a value of 60, Soya a value of 68 and cows milk a value of 72.

The protein of cereals used in the West is very poor in lysine, one of the amino acids essential for good health. Amaranthus contains twice as much lysine as wheat and 3 times as much as corn. The National Academy of Science in the USA has established that a mixture of corn flour and Amaranthus flour would give the ideal protein level of 100.

The nutritional value of Amaranthus grain is one of the essential qualities of indexing, of the evaluation and improvement of thousands of plants used by all the peoples of the planet. Thus at the NBPGR in Shimla, in India, researchers have discovered varieties of Amaranthus containing as much as 22% protein and as much as 7% lysine in the protein, although the average was 5.5%. Once again it should be stressed that this level of lysine in Amaranthus grain is essential to the diet of the Third World whose basic foodstuff is nearly always cereal.

The people of the West eat a lot of meat in order to find the required level of lysine for good health. It would seem a wise move to encourage these rich countries to choose a more balanced selection of cereals, which would then allow them to reduce their often excessive consumption of meat in a world, which suffers from more and more malnutrition.

As well as its protein, Amaranthus grain contains a lot of calcium, phosphorous, iron, potassium, zinc, vitamin E and vitamin B.

It is this nutritional wealth which places the value of Amaranthus leaves above all other leaf vegetables. The leaves of Amaranthus are in fact an excellent source of carotene, iron, calcium, protein, vitamin C and other trace elements. By way of comparison there are for example in the leaves of grain Amaranthus, 3 times more vitamin C, 10 times more carotene, 15 times more iron and 40 times more calcium than in tomatoes. The leaves of Amaranthus contain 3 times more vitamin C, 3 times more calcium and 3 times more niacin than spinach leaves.

Let us take for example Amaranthus palmeri, widely eaten by the Yaqui, Papago and Pima peoples of the Sonora desert in America. It contains 3 times more calories, 18 times more vitamin A, 13 times more vitamin C, 20 times more calcium and 7 times more iron than lettuce!

Amaranthus, whether grain or leaf, constitutes a veritable solar factory. It is one of the privileged plants of the planet, which use a system of photosynthesis called C4. This means of photosynthesis is particularly efficient in conditions of drought, extreme heat and great solar intensity. It allows these plants to convert twice the amount of solar energy into ‘growth’ than plants, which use the system called C3, and with the same amount of water. The productivity of Amaranthus varies considerably according to the variety, climate, richness of the soil, etc.

It can yield between 500kg and 5 tonnes a hectare. The varieties introduced into USA by the Rodale institute and other centres, such as Plainsman and K432, are said to produce on average 2 tonnes per hectare. Yields up to 6 tonnes a hectare have been achieved on certain experimental plots.

The seeds of the Amaranthus plant are incredibly tiny and so a gramme will contain 1,000 seeds and possibly as many as 3,000 seeds. It is not unusual to have magnificent panicles of more than 100,000 seeds. It has even been reported that 1 plant contained as many as 450,000 seeds. This is hardly surprising when you see a self-sown plant, unimpeded by other plants, reaching 3m in height with a width of 1m and with stems 5cm across at the nose.

One can but admire the genius of the peoples of the mountains and deserts who for thousands of years, have selected and improved the wild Amaranthus with its prickly stems and branches and its bitter grain, into magnificent panicles with sweet inflorescence and delicious grain, flamboyant with all the colours of the rainbow, which are a tribute to beauty, true nutrition and to the wisdom of mankind evolving together with his environment.