Grown by the Aztecs and then all but eliminated in the Spanish conquest, the ancient crop amaranth may become the next quinoa. Advocates hope amaranth can help Mexicans eat healthier, better connect to their roots, and lessen their impact on the environment. But will people eat it?
Amaranth is a broad-leafed, bushy plant that grows about six feet (1.8 meters) tall. It produces a brightly colored flower that can contain up to 60,000 seeds. The seeds are nutritious and can be made into a flour. Not a true grain, amaranth is often called a pseudocereal, like its relative quinoa. Both plants belong to a large family that also includes beets, chard, spinach, and lots of weeds.
There are around 60 different species of amaranth, and a few of them are native to Mesoamerica. For the last decade, the Oaxaca-based advocacy group Puente a la Salud Comunitaria (Bridge to Community Health) has been working to promote the plant's virtues.
Pete Noll, the group's executive director, argues that his work couldn't come at a more important time. In July, the United Nations announced that Mexico had overtaken the United States as the world's most obese country. According to the report, 32.8 percent of Mexican adults are obese, compared with 31.8 percent of American adults.
"Obesity is a devastating problem in Mexico," Noll said. "Amaranth may be part of the solution. It is a whole, healthy food that can be produced locally, and it may create the possibility of change."
Noll pointed to widespread availability of fast food, urbanization, lack of physical activity, and heavy advertising of junk foods as culprits in the obesity epidemic. As evidence of the devastating effects, he noted a recent media report about a 13-year-old Mexican boy who died of a heart attack.
At the same time, many people in Mexico still struggle with hunger. Some 10,000 children die from malnutrition in the country each year, Noll noted. "These issues are linked: Childhood malnutrition makes people seven to eight times more likely to be overweight or obese as adults," he said.
"Oaxaca has a cuisine that is known worldwide, but it also has food deserts," Noll added, referring to areas where it is difficult for consumers to find fresh, healthy foods.
Amaranth is gluten free and its seeds contain about 30 percent more protein than rice, sorghum, and rye, according to a USDA Forest Service report. It is also relatively high in calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium, and fiber, according to Puente.
"Amaranth's amino acid profile is as close to perfect as you can get for a protein source," Noll said. The plant contains eight essential amino acids and is particularly high in the amino acid lysine, which is largely lacking in corn and wheat, he explained.
"So if you make a tortilla with amaranth and corn, you give people a low-cost, culturally acceptable, healthy basic foodstuff," he said.
Florisa Barquera, a doctor and nutritional expert at the Universidad Anáhuac, Mexico City, and a member of the Mexican Academy for Obesity, told National Geographic that amaranth has been recommended by the World Health Organization as a well-balanced food and recommended by NASA for consumption in space missions. The variety of amaranth consumed in Mexico is 16 to 18 percent protein, she said, compared with 14 percent protein in wheat and 9 to 10 percent protein in corn.
Some studies have shown that amaranth also contains beneficial omega-3s and may help reduce blood pressure, said Barquera, who writes and speaks frequently about nutrition in Mexico but is not affiliated with Puente.
A young boy plants amaranth in the San Isidro community of Oaxaca.
Photograph courtesy Alice Stafford
Amaranth's Bloody History
During the pre-Columbian period, the Aztecs cultivated amaranth as a staple grain crop, according to Kate Seely, a co-founder and the president of the board of Puente. But things changed when the Spanish conquistadors arrived.
In addition to its use as a core food crop, amaranth had been used in a religious context. "Native folks would pop the seeds and mix them with sacrificial human blood," said Seely, who is now based in Oakland, California. "They would form the seeds into sculptures and then eat them in religious ceremonies. This was seen as pagan [by the Spanish], so it was outlawed."
Amaranth crops were seized, fields were burned, and those who tried to grow the plant were punished. According to Noll, the locals replaced their former staple by eating more corn.
But amaranth cultivation did survive in a few isolated pockets. The grain lived on in a traditional treat called alegria (joy), in which popped, whole-grain amaranth is made into bars with honey and sunflower and pumpkin seeds. The bars are often enjoyed during Day of the Dead and other festivals.
"What we're trying to do is bring amaranth back into cultivation and consumption," said Seely. "It has high levels of micro- and macro-nutrients that are lacking in the Oaxacan diet, and it is a source of vitamins and nutrients that can help combat malnutrition," she said.
Fighting Birth Defects
Seely first identified amaranth's potential after doing research in Oaxaca in the summers of 2001 and 2002. She and a group of other students were doing research on neural-tube birth defects for the Oaxacan Secretary of Health. The rate of such defects is high in southern Mexico. Seely learned that folic acid is largely absent from the local diet, which increases the risk of the birth defects.
Invited to run educational programs on the importance of folic acid, the students "didn't want to be vitamin proselytizers," Seely said. They looked for a local, natural source of the nutrient, and found amaranth.
In 2003, Seely turned that project into an organization by founding Puente with Katherine Lorenz, who was doing similar humanitarian work in the region. Lorenz is currently the Puente board's treasurer and secretary.
Puente now operates in three regions of Oaxaca, serving three different indigenous groups. It works at the national level on agricultural policy reform, and works at the community and individual levels to convince farmers to plant amaranth and consumers to eat it.
Puente teaches classes, broadcasts on community radio, and runs ad campaigns. The group is also working with a network of some 250 small-scale farmers. Staffers hand out starter seeds and provide training and technical assistance. Puente is also building a regional network of markets to sell the amaranth locally.
A woman demonstrates how to prepare amaranth in Mexico.
Photograph courtesy Nikhol Esterás Roberts
Environmental and Cultural Benefits
Amaranth may have some environmental advantages over corn, noted Seely. The plant needs less water to grow, which is particularly important in water-stressed areas like much of Oaxaca. "Amaranth can exist up to 40 days without rain and still produce seeds, unlike corn," said Seely.
Amaranth also grows fast and is easy to harvest, and can help reduce reliance on imported food, said Seely.
Farmers can get three to four times more money for a bushel of amaranth than a bushel of other grains, said Noll. Even so, adoption of the forgotten plant has been slow. Puente estimates that about 200 acres is planted with amaranth in Oaxaca now, compared with two million acres of corn in the state.
"We are at the very beginning of a long journey," Noll said.
Seely added, "The most common response when we started the program was, 'My grandparents used to farm this,' or 'I know this through alegria [the traditional treat].'" People aren't used to farming it today.
Even if farmers are convinced to take a gamble on amaranth, it typically takes two to four years for them to start seeing much production, said Seely. She said it takes practice for farmers to learn to get everything right at all stages of production on their land, from sowing to tending and harvesting. Technical assistance helps, but there is still some trial and error to the process.
Perhaps the hardest step is convincing Mexican consumers to eat it on a large scale. Besides baking the meal in tortillas, Puente encourages people to experiment more with eating amaranth leaves, by putting them in soups or blending them in juices. Puente even distributes an amaranth cookbook.
Barquera says few people in Mexico are aware of the nutritional properties of amaranth. "Why do people prefer corn? Maybe it has to do with the fact that we are exposed to it in many different forms since childhood, and because it is so accessible," she said.
It may also have to do with the fact that amaranth is currently far more expensive than corn, running around $1.50 a kilogram versus 40 cents a kilogram for corn in Mexico. Barquera counters that relying too much on corn has nutritional costs; she would like to see people eat a more varied diet.
Barquera advises consumers to consider choosing products that incorporate amaranth into processed foods like bread, chips, pasta, and even desserts like marzipan and ice cream. Puente tries to distance itself from such products, instead promoting consumption of amaranth in as pure a form as possible.
Seely said health-conscious consumers in the U.S. and other developed countries would likely gobble up Oaxacan amaranth, but Puente is "not ready" to begin an export business.
"We're very conscious of not wanting to make amaranth a cash crop," Seely added. "Our focus is consumption within the household, and then whatever is left is sold on a small scale locally."
Seely said she doesn't want to drive an amaranth bubble along the lines of what has happened to quinoa. In Bolivia, high international demand for quinoa has driven conversion of natural areas to big fields, and the price has soared so much that some locals can no longer afford their native food.
In 1977, Science magazine called amaranth "the crop of the future," thanks to its hardiness and nutritional profile. The advocates of Puente hope it will become an important crop of Oaxaca, today, but there's no telling yet if it will take off.
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