03/26/2014 04:51 EDT | Updated 05/07/2018 10:48 EDT

Benefits Of Amaranth: 14 Reasons To Get Into This Grain

It's an ancient food that boasts some impressive nutritional stats.

Benefits Of Amaranth: 14 Reasons To Get Into This

It's getting hard to keep track of the super grains, we know, but we promise, amaranth is worth learning about. This tiny-but-powerful food has some similarities to quinoa — both are good protein sources and are naturally gluten-free — but it also boasts some impressive nutritional stats of its own.

You'll start seeing it pop up in processed foods like granola bars, but it's also great to eat on its own, and can be prepared a few different ways. There's a reason (actually, by our count at least 14 of them) that it's been around for millennia! Read on to find out more about amaranth.

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1. It Was An Aztec Staple

Amaranth was a key part of the diets of the pre-Columbian Aztecs, and it was used not just for food but also as part of their religious ceremonies. Sadly, when Cortez and the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 16th century, amaranth crops were burned and its use forbidden. Fortunately, the plant was never quite eliminated.

2. It's Actually A Seed

Like quinoa, amaranth is not technically a grain but is the seed of the amaranth plant. One plant can produce up to 60,000 seeds.

3. Amaranth Is Gluten-Free

Amaranth doesn't contain any gluten, which makes it a great choice for people who are celiac or gluten intolerant and an excellent way to boost the nutritional power of gluten-free recipes.

4. It Contains Lysine

Most grains like wheat are short on lysine, an amino acid, but that's not the case for amaranth. This makes amaranth a complete protein, because it contains all the essential amino acids.

5. Amaranth Contains Protein

Amaranth's protein content is about 13 percent, or 26 grams per cup, which is much higher than for most other grains. To compare, a cup of long-grain white rice has just 13 grams of protein.

6. The Plant Is Hardy

Amaranth prefers a high elevation, but can grow at almost any elevation in temperate climates if it has moist, loose soil with good drainage. It can also survive in low-water conditions once the plants have been established.

7. You Can Eat Other Parts Of The Plant

Amaranth seeds may be the best-known part of the plant, which has more than 60 different species, but the leaves are also edible. They're commonly used in Asian and Caribbean cuisines — try them stir-fried or chopped and added to soup.

8. It's A Source Of Key Vitamins And Minerals

Amaranth contains calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, and iron. One cup of uncooked amaranth has 31 percent of the RDA for calcium, 14 percent for vitamin C, and a whopping 82 percent for iron.

9. Humans Have Eaten It For Millennia

It's estimated that amaranth was first domesticated 6,000 to 8,000 years ago, which means we've been eating it for a very long time. Considering how easily and quickly it grows, that makes sense!

10. Amaranth Can Be Popped

Popped amaranth is used in Mexico as a topping for toast, among other things. It looks like tiny popcorn kernels and has a nutty taste, and you can even do it yourself at home.

11. It Grows Around The World

Though amaranth is considered a native plant of Peru, it is now grown around the world in countries including China, Russia, Thailand, Nigeria, and Mexico. It has also become a part of the cuisines of parts of India, Nepal, and the African continent. There are even farmers growing it in parts of the United States, including Nebraska and North Dakota.

12. Amaranth Is Good For Your Heart

Several studies have shown that amaranth could have cholesterol-lowering potential. For example, in 1996 an American study found that the oil found in amaranth could lower total and LDL cholesterol in chickens. Another published in 2003, out of Guelph, showed that amaranth has phytosterols, which have cholesterol-cutting properties.

13. It's A Great Breakfast Option

Amaranth's tiny grains take on a porridge-like texture when cooked, making it a great option for your first meal of the day, like this recipe from Jeannette's Healthy Living. In fact, amaranth porridge is a traditional breakfast in India, Peru, Mexico, and Nepal.

14. And It Can Help Keep You Regular

Among its other impressive nutritional stats, amaranth is also a source of fibre with 13 grams of dietary fibre per uncooked cup compared to just 2 grams for the same amount of long-grain white rice.