In 1977, I was involved with a project in which we introduced grain
amaranth to a dozen highland Mayan farmers in San Juan Comalapa,
Guatemala. Twenty-eight years later—on a recent trip back
to Guatemala to visit the Catu family, with whom I lived back then—there
was no sign of the amaranth. There was, however, another “food”
new to my host family—Pepsi. Everything else for the special
“guest” meal—the tortillas, beans, greens, a little
beef—was the same as before. I’ve been told that Pepsi
carried out a massive advertising campaign in rural areas. Why Pepsi
and not Coke? “We’re a Pepsi family,” they proclaimed
in testament to the effectiveness and pervasiveness of the ad campaign.
The good news is that the soda pop ritual only happens about twice
a month; on special occasions, they buy two liters for 24 people.
I can give them that. I just wish we had the type of promotional
power and funding for foods like amaranth that the soda pop and
beer companies have.
I had known since the 1970s that amaranth grain was considered
an excellent food because of its complement of amino acids. But
upon reexamining amaranth’s nutritional data (some of it recently
published), plus having just finished off a bag of atole de
amaranto, a good-tasting, amaranth-based powder for making
the hot drink atole, I’m newly astonished—both
by amaranth’s super-nutritional qualities and its continued
obscurity. Amaranth is a truly remarkable food. As one U.S. food
industry person (admittedly from a company that develops and markets
amaranth) put it: "Amaranth is positioned in today’s
marketplace like soybeans were 50 years ago." I now realize
Amaranth enjoys a protein content of a remarkable 16 percent and
is two to three times higher in lysine than most other grains. In
fact, this important amino acid is low in most other grains and
is perennially deficient in the diets of the rural poor in countries
such as Guatemala. Amaranth is also 4 to 8 times higher in calcium
and 3 to 5 times higher in iron—both critical elements for
nutrition—than other common grains such as corn, wheat, and
rice. In fact, when rated by nutritionists for general nutritional
quality, amaranth scores significantly higher than other common
foods such as milk, soy, wheat and corn. Amaranth’s digestibility
score is an impressive 90 percent, much higher than problematic
foods such as soy, milk and wheat.
Amaranth seeds contain 5 percent to 9 percent high-quality oil,
again, much higher than the common grains. Found in the amaranth
oil are tocotrienols—a relatively rare and very beneficial
form of vitamin E—and squalene, another rare compound reported
to have anti-cancer properties.
Amaranth is not a new crop here, or more accurately it can be said
to be both old and new. Cultivated extensively by the ancient Mayas
and Aztecs, amaranth was so important to the latter culture that
they used it as a medium for subjugated tribes to pay tribute. It
is estimated that some 20,000 tons per year of amaranth were brought
to the ancient Mexican city Tenochtitlan from the 17 surrounding
provinces, where it was used as a food associated with religious
days. It was this association with the Aztec and Mayan religions
that prompted the Spanish rulers to banish the crop from its Mesoamerican
empire. Since then it has mostly disappeared from Central America.
In Mexico, grain amaranth production has hung on until today, but
as a relatively minor non-staple; it is the basis of a sweet cookie-like
condiment called alegria, in which popped amaranth is mixed
with sugar syrup and honey.
Other countries such as India, Nepal, China, and the U.S. have
done work on grain amaranth. In the U.S., The Rodale Institute (publisher
of New Farm) has done the most work on amaranth, mostly in the 1970s.
Several varieties that have been used in the U.S. were released
by The Rodale Institute (TRI). TRI’s work on the crop was
discontinued in the 1980s.
In countries such as Guatemala, where more than 50 percent of the
population lives in poverty (World Bank, 2004), malnutrition is
rampant, and infant mortality is still high, amaranth, as the primary
ingredient in a formula, can replace the “modern” nutritional
formulas developed over the years in attempt to bolster rural people’s
nutrition. An article in the Journal of Food Science concluded that
amaranth grain could be the basis of infant formula because of its
combination of high digestibility and nutritional quality.
Combine these nutritional pluses with the fact that amaranth is
a hardy, drought-resistant plant, and you have a crop with great
potential for incorporation into developing (as well as developed)
My trip to visit a smallholder farm where amaranth is being reintroduced
as a potential grain crop took me into the hinterlands of a region
of Guatemala that is considered to be “food insecure”
(food security is the going word these days in agricultural development
circles). Totonicapán, a Mayan Quechua speaking area, is
one of the poorest regions in Central America, with more than 50
percent of the population categorized by the World Bank as “extremely
poor.” (There are three main categories: non-poor, poor [as
mentioned above, this category characterizes 50 percent of Guatemalan
population], and extremely poor. The extremely poor have serious
malnutrition, health, and infant mortality problems.)
I was struck by the percentage of land that is badly eroded, to
the point that bedrock shows and no crops can be grown (except perhaps
vetiver grass, another remarkable plant. Vetiver will not only grow
on these sites, it will regenerate the topsoil by stopping runoff
in its tracks.) An even higher percentage of the cropland was down
to gravel and sand, and a mid-season drought had turned the corn
crop on these soils into shriveled, yellow, stunted plants that
would yield little or nothing. About half the land had good soil,
and the crops looked alright.
It was in one of these eroded, gravel-strewn parcels of cropland
where the corn had completely failed that we found a thriving crop
of amaranth. Though the number of amaranth plants that had been
cultivated was small, the health of the crop—with its robust,
red inflorescences—was impressive. Amaranth’s reputation
for drought resistance, while not well documented (though some data
exists) seems to be well-founded.
Amaranth is one of the few dicotyledonous plants that has what
is known as the C4 metabolism, a much more efficient form of photosynthesis
than the more-common C3 and linked to proficient production and
drought resistance. Most of the world’s C4 crops—corn,
sorghum, sugar cane, millet—are from the grass family.
The Spanish NGO (non-governmental organization) Intervida is currently
the main entity promoting amaranth for small farm production in
Guatemala. Intervida’s headquarters just outside Quetzaltenango
resemble a college campus. There, two fulltime Guatemalan extension
agents who work on amaranth; Roberto Miranda focuses on amaranth
agronomy and the dissemination of seed, and Gladys Castillo works
on the equally important aspect of the domestic processing and preparation
of amaranth, an area often left out of food-crop development projects.
The farmer-collaborator, Santos Modesto, is a smallholder farmer
near the village of Xecajá. Santos had sown amaranth in his
milpa, a traditional corn-bean-squash polyculture. In the
plot that still had good soil, the corn plants (a local variety)
were about 2 meters tall; shorter than usual because of the mid-season
drought, but nevertheless yielding adequately. Modesto had cultivated
amaranth plants, from seed provided by Roberto, at a ratio of approximately
two or three corn plants to one amaranth. This type of mix is the
way in which many farmers here do things. Roberto said that there
were other collaborators who had sown the amaranth in small monoculture
Grain amaranth is an ideal crop for small farmers. Since it is
small seeded (about a millimeter in diameter—slightly larger
than poppy seed— and off-white colored), farmers can spread
the seed liberally and then harvest them young for pot herbs when
they are 20cm to 30cm high, leaving adequately spaced plants for
grain production. The grain amaranth plants commonly reach two meters
In traditional markets all over Mexico and Central America, bundles
of baby weed amaranth known as bledo (which grows liberally
in farmers’ fields) are sold as pot herbs. The same weed,
known as pigweed, grows all over North America where soils are disturbed
in the spring (i.e., virtually all gardens and farm fields). Vegetable
amaranth has been rated as equal or superior to spinach in taste
and has substantially more calcium, iron and phosphorus. The baby
forms of grain amaranth are equally as good as pot herbs.
Most of the amaranth grain varieties are Amaranthus hypochondriacus,
with some varieties coming from A. cruentus and A.
caudatus. Vegetable amaranth varieties were developed in the
1970s from A. tricolor, A. lividus, and A.
creuntus. Amaranths are some of the worst weeds in the world.
All are black seeded, the most common being A. retroflexus.
Harvesting grain amaranth requires more labor than harvesting corn
but no more than harvesting beans. After seed filling, the amaranth
inflorescence is cut from the plant, taken to the home compound,
and dried over a plastic tarp, which catches the seeds.
According to Roberto Miranda, the grain amaranths they have tested
have yielded the equivalent of 3,600 kg/ha. This is consistent with
trials in the U.S., where amaranth yields have ranged from 1,500
to 6,000 kg/ha.
Intervida packages a product, called Amarantole—made from
the flour of toasted amaranth, corn and rice, with added cinnamon—for
making atole, the porridge-like, sweetened beverage that
is a favorite hot drink here. The agency also has extension workers
in the field teaching women how to prepare the amaranth by gently
toasting it, grinding it on their stone grinders, and blending it
into tortillas or into their traditional atole recipes.
Progress is, of course, slow in trying to get people to put something
new into their food routines, even when it tastes good and can significantly
improve their nutritional status; that is, unless they are subject
to massive advertising campaigns—a la Pepsi—or perceive
it as being able to make them “modern.” (These caveats
don’t just apply to the people of developing countries; American
culture is rife with such examples.)
“We are in Guatemala for the long run,” says Intervida’s
I finished off the package of Amarantole that was given to me by
Intervida and want more. Today I searched the market in vain for
amaranth seed, semilla de bledo, in order to make my own.
Don Lotter is a freelance agricultural researcher and journalist
based in Davis, California. He is a frequent contributor to NewFarm.org.
How to make Amarantole:
coffee grinder or grain grinder (or amaranth flour and ground toasted
toasted sesame seed
Lightly toast the amaranth seed and (if needed) the sesame seed.
Fill the coffee grinder up to the blades with amaranth seed and
grind to flour. Do this a second time, but with a tablespoon of
toasted sesame seed added.
Add a dash of cinnamon.
Whisk the amaranth-sesame flour mix into 2-3 cups of cold water
and bring it to a boil. Add a slice of butter. Let it cool a little.
Add a dollop of honey, and enjoy a delicious and nutritious hot