For thousands of years Mayan and Incan civilizations have grown amaranth. Other names for this rich grain are achita and kiwicha. Ancient Aztecs grew amaranth believing it to have magical properties. It was the main food of their royalty and they used it in a number of their rituals. One such ritual may have involved mixing crushed amaranth seeds with human blood. Supposedly, when the Spanish came to America, they burned all the amaranth in an effort to stop that ritual. Afterwards, anyone caught with amaranth seeds had their hands caught off as punishment.
In recent years, amaranth has become popular for its nutritional value. These tiny light brown seeds are low in saturated fat, contain many vitamins and minerals, and are high in protein, having the highest amount of the amino acid lysine than any other grain. Their high fiber content offers protection from cancer, heart disease, and digestive tract problems. Amaranth also fights off anemia and osteoporosis because it is rich in iron, magnesium, and calcium. An added bonus is its high concentration of phytosterols, which help to prevent a variety of diseases.
Raw amaranth can block the absorption of some nutrients so it is necessary to cook it before eating. This grain can be cooked in liquid to eat as a hot cereal, used as a thickener in soups, popped like popcorn, or ground to use as flour in baked goods. The gluten free properties of amaranth make it a good choice for people with gluten allergies, but may also require it to be combined with other flours for the best results in baked goods. Amaranth can be found as an ingredient in other products such as cereals and crackers.
Amaranth is grown in scattered locations that include Mexico, Central America, India, Nepal, China, Eastern Africa, and the Midwest and Western United States. This drought tolerant grain does well in sunny areas with warm temperatures. Each plant grows rapidly and produces many seeds. The large seed heads can contain up to a half-million seeds.
Although amaranth is not actually a member of the grass family, it seeds have a high starch content that can be used in cereal products. Because of these characteristics, amaranth seeds generally are classified as whole grains.