Until recently, our Western diet has focused on grains such as wheat, corn, and oats. Now, the focus is shifting to include some new taste — and health — sensations: amaranth and quinoa.
These two “new” grains are popping up in some grocery store aisles — no longer relegated to the shadows in a few health food stores. However, they’re actually not new to the grain scene; they’re just fresh to our North American consciousness. In fact, they’re centuries old.
The amaranth grain first showed up as part of the pre- Columbian Aztecs’ diet and culture. Though banned by the Spanish conquistadors for its role in Aztec religious practices, the grain’s use as a food has endured in parts of Mexico and the Andes.
The plant (Amaranthus esculantus) is actually an annual herb rather than a true grain. It has been traditionally grown as an ornamental plant (some of the tricolor varieties are quite striking), vegetable (for its leaf), and a grain (for its seed). The seed can be used as a cereal, sprouts can be added to salads, toasted, popped, cooked as a side dish, or ground into flour for use in breads, pasta, and other baked goods.
Amaranth is very high in fiber and protein, and it contains amino acids that are not found in traditional grains (i.e. lysine, methionine), as well as calcium, iron, potassium, phosphorus, and vitamins A and C.
One 2006 study found that the grain could have a significant role in treating hyperglycaemia (high blood sugar) and staving off diabetic complications. It is important to combine amaranth with other food items, such as grains and legumes, to get the full range of nutrients.
Quinoa, pronounced “keen-wa,” has its origins in the Andes, its use going back more than 6,000 years! Considered sacred by the Incas, this healthy grain was another victim of the Spanish conquest.
This grain has a lot to offer, even being classified as a “supercrop” by the United Nations due to its great protein content (13%). Like amaranth, quinoa contains some amino acids that are not present in the usual grains. It also has good amounts of fiber, phosphorous, magnesium, potassium, and iron, among other things. Don’t attempt to grow this one on your own, as it contains certain substances that need to be processed out in order for it to be edible.
Make sure you soak this grain for a few hours before using it in order to remove any “saponin” residue (this is a soapy substance that can give the grain a bitter taste). You can use quinoa as an alternative to rice or pasta, as a cereal, and in baking, in combination with other flours.
One of the most important features of both of these grains is the fact that they don’t contain gluten. If you or someone you know has celiac disease, then you know how important this characteristic is. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder affecting the small bowel, which consists of an adverse reaction to a gluten protein found in wheat. The symptoms can be quite debilitating and someone suffering from this disease has an extremely limited diet, considering the vast number of products out there that contain wheat.
The North American agricultural scene is welcoming quinoa and amaranth as easy-to-grow alternatives to wheat and other grains. An increasing number of farms that focus on these ancient grains are popping up, which means more quinoa and amaranth products are becoming available.
The word on how healthy these grain alternatives are is spreading and you should be seeing more and more quinoa and amaranth products on the shelves at your local grocery store. If you haven’t seen them yet, talk to the store manager; public demand can have a huge impact on what’s offered in stores.