Ancient seeds and grains from distant parts of the Earth are always being marketed for their superfood qualities and their extraordinary power to improve your sense of wellbeing.
Amaranth (or Kiwicha seeds in Peruvian), an ancient pseudo-cereal from South America that dates back 8,000 years to Aztec times, is no different. It’s just one of the many healthy food products available for sale dubbed a ‘superfood’.
Accredited Practising Dietitian, Joel Feren, says although amaranth is a pretty special seed it’s not a superfood. “Ancient grains are making a bit of a comeback lately,” says spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, Feren. “They are quite retro these days, as people are looking for foods that are different. But amaranth is not a superfood. Why? Because no one single food can provide anyone with all the nutrition they need.
“Amaranth has a really impressive nutritional profile and it should be considered as part of a healthy, balanced diet along side a range of other foods.”
Feren explains that amaranth’s real attraction stems back to the fact that it is a pseudograin or pseudocereal: a seed that offers the nutritional benefits of grains like wheat and rice. That makes it suitable for people following a paleo diet.
“It could probably be classified as a pseudo-grain, because it has similar characteristics to grains like quinoa and other wheats in terms of its nutritional properties. Amaranth is a good source of fibre, vitamin A, folate, thiamine, iron, zinc, calcium, copper, manganese and potassium.”
Amaranth oil has also been shown to have a positive effect on heart health, lowering cardiovascular risk and hypertension. Meanwhile, amaranth seeds are very rich in protein, containing around 15 per cent.
The other big benefit, Feren says, is that amaranth also contains 10 essential amino acids. That makes it a valuable source of nutrients for vegans and vegetarians. It’s also gluten and wheat-free, and suitable for people with coeliac disease or gluten intolerance.
Owner of Our Organics & Gluten Free, Geoff Lewis, sells amaranth puffs, flakes, seeds and flour to retailers, restaurants and caterers. He estimates that an uncooked cup of amaranth will give you about 13 grams of dietary fibre.
Lewis adds that the seed, which has a nutty flavour, is very easy to cook with. “If you have cooked with rice before, you can cook with amaranth,” he explains.
“Just replace the rice with amaranth and also use it instead of couscous. You can have it as breakfast porridge, in soups, slow-cooked meals and granola bars…The seed doesn’t totally soften: it stays crunchy but it tends to have a gelatinous porridge-y look to it.”
Lewis says amaranth flour is quite a big seller. “Use the flour to make anything gluten-free, from breads to cakes and biscuits. It’s not a rising flour. If you cook with only amaranth flour by itself, your dish will crumble or be dense and heavy. So, for example, you can add [a rising agent] to the recipe to produce a lovely cake.”
A study in 2013 investigated the effect of replacing wheat flour with whole amaranth flour to determine if it is a nutritious bread-making ingredient. The researchers found that incorporating amaranth flour into the bread-making mix significantly increased the protein, lipid, ash, dietary fibre and mineral contents of the bread. However, the bread made with amaranth flour became more crumby and hard as well as elastic.
The study concluded that amaranth flour can be used to make bread but it should be limited to a maximum proportion of 20 grams for every 100 grams of wheat flour to maintain both product quality as well as the nutritional benefit of this ingredient”.
The one criticism that amaranth attracts is that it has a high carbohydrate content, which can turn carb-free health foodies off. As a result, some paleo bloggers have praised amaranth’s nutritional profile but ruled only to have sparingly because of its high carb content.
It’s true: amaranth seed is a high glycemic food when served on its own. Although nutritional contents will vary according to the product you use, one cup of cooked amaranth is said to have around 40 grams of carbs.
Research published in the Journal of Food Science says this is most likely because of its small starch granule size, low resistant starch content. Amaranth also has a tendency to completely lose its crystalline and granular starch structure during heating.
A study, published in Springer, attempted to test whether amaranth’s GI can be lowered, by combining it with wheat flour and rice in different proportions. It also looked at the GI of popped amaranth in milk. The research used noninsulin dependent diabetic. The study showed that amaranth and wheat in a 25:75 ration could be considered as a low GI food. Boosting the ratio to 50:50 would make the food medium GI. It concluded that the combination of popped amaranth and milk was a high GI food.
But Feren believes the ancient seed should not be vilified – along with all other grains like rice and wheat – just because of its high carb content when it offers so many other nutrients.
“Often we get too fixated on a single food that we overlook the big picture,” says Feren. “We need to include carbohydrates as part of a healthy diet.
“Amaranth has a wonderful nutritional profile and it shouldn’t be pushed to the side for that reason. It’s just another alternative to using quinoa, wheat, rye, freekah and bulgar wheat.
“Foods like these should really be celebrated. We have to get around the carb content of these wonderful seeds and grains because they can add lots of valuable nutrition to the diet.”