Everything You Need to Know About Amaranth

This ancient grain is easy to cook, sustainable, and best of all, a nutritional powerhouse

Amaranth grain spilling out of a spoon Photo: Getty Images

If you’re looking for a super-healthy alternative to rice, pasta, couscous, or even oatmeal, you might try mild, nutty-flavored amaranth. You’d be doing your body a favor and supporting sustainable agriculture. These tiny pale-golden seeds are packed with a variety of nutrients, many of which we could all use more of. And given that it’s also drought-, heat-, and pest-tolerant and can survive in inhospitable terrain, it’s been touted as a food that can feed the world in a changing climate.

What Is Amaranth?

Amaranth is often called an ancient grain—the plant has been cultivated for over 8,000 years—but technically it’s not a grain at all. It belongs to the same botanical family as beets, chard, and spinach. Amaranth is highly adaptable and disease-resistant, and it’s a multi-use plant: In addition to its seeds, its sprouts, microgreens, and leaves are edible. Some varieties are grown just for their seeds, which are similar to whole grains culinarily and nutritionally, and can be used in place of them.

A Brief History of Amaranth

Most amaranth species are native to the Americas. Central and South American indigenous people started cultivating the plant millennia ago as a staple food and an ornamental (for its bright-colored flowers). The Aztecs considered it sacred, making offerings with the seeds for religious rituals and even fashioning a giant effigy of their warrior god out of amaranth dough. In the 16th century the Spanish conquistadors banned the plant’s cultivation, fearing that the spiritual connection with it would stymie the establishment of Catholicism on the continent. But the Incas and Mayans continued to grow amaranth.

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Today, it’s produced not just in the Americas but also in China, India, Southeast Asia, West Africa, and the Caribbean. Most of the amaranth sold in the U.S. is grown on small farms in the Himalayas and is probably organic, says Matthew Blair, PhD, a research professor of agricultural and environmental sciences at Tennessee State University in Nashville and president of the Amaranth Institute.

Amaranth has several uses across many different cultures. Ethiopians use the seeds to make an unleavened bread called kita, an alcoholic drink known as borde, and a porridge for new mothers and their babies. In India, amaranth is eaten along with boiled rice and also made into laddoos, a ball-shaped dessert. The Vietnamese use amaranth greens in salads, soups, and as potherbs, or boiled greens. And in Mexico today, amaranth flour is used to make tlayudas (open-faced tortillas with savory toppings), and popped seeds are sprinkled on fruit or mixed with honey or agave syrup to make candies called alegrias (“joy”) that date back to the Aztecs. Those same ingredients are sometimes made into calaveras (“skulls”) with raisin eyes and peanut noses for Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations on Nov. 1 each year.

Amaranth Nutrition Stats

When it comes to grains, many people stick with rice, wheat, and oats, says Sonya Angelone, MS, RDN, a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Eating amaranth is a way to break out of that rut. “The more varied your diet, the more different types of healthy gut bacteria you have, which then helps you stay healthier because 70 percent of your immune system is in your gut,” she says.

What’s more, amaranth is “a perfect mix of protein and starches,” Blair says, “and within the protein it has amino acids [such as lysine] that are deficient in other whole grains we eat, like corn and rice.”

One cup of cooked amaranth has 9 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber. It also has more than four times as much calcium as wheat—153 vs. 34 mg, which is 12 percent of your daily need—and is a good source of iron, magnesium, phosphorus, manganese, and B vitamins and vitamins C and E. Naturally gluten-free, it’s a good option for anyone who has celiac disease or is sensitive to gluten, Angelone says. Although amaranth has several antioxidants and other healthy plant nutrients, not enough research has been done in humans to determine if it might have a role in helping prevent chronic illnesses, such as heart disease and cancer.

Like other dark leafy greens, amaranth leaves (which, like chard, can range from red to green) are highly nutritious. They supply many of the same nutrients as the grain, but they’re lower in protein and higher in calcium, folate (a B vitamin), potassium, and selenium. 

Putting Amaranth on Your Plate

Amaranth is a multipurpose staple you can adapt for sweet and savory dishes. For breakfast, you can cook it with water as you would a hot cereal—2 cups of water for every cup of amaranth, which will cook up to 2½ cups—and add fruit, nuts, and/or cinnamon, Angelone says. Or blend it into your favorite smoothie in place of chia seeds or flaxseeds.

You can also add it as a protein-rich thickener to chilis and soups. Or cook it like rice and add sautéed garlic and onions to make a side dish. “It ends up looking like a pilaf or a porridge, depending on how much water you put in,” Angelone says. She likes to make a batch of amaranth and add some greens and shrimp, chicken, or tofu for a one-pot dinner. You can also heat up a skillet, add the seeds, and cover the skillet to make popped amaranth.

Amaranth can also be sprouted from seeds; the sprouts are a wine-red color and can be added to salads. Amaranth leaves, when they’re small, can be used like other microgreens in salads. More mature leaves can be cooked in the same way you would spinach or kale.

Grow Your Own Amaranth

It’s easy to grow amaranth in your garden, Blair says. Although some amaranth plants can grow to 8 feet, the veggie and seed varieties tend to top out at 3 to 4 feet. He suggests the Burgundy variety as a good option if you want to be able to eat the seeds, microgreens, and leaves.

Plant amaranth in full sun a month to six weeks after the last frost (amaranth thrives in warmer soil). After two weeks, thin out the plants (they’ll be no more than 3 inches tall) and voilà—they’re edible microgreens. After six weeks you can harvest and eat the leaves, which are similar to spinach and chard.

You can harvest the seeds after three to four months or an end-of-season freeze. Cut off the flower heads and let them dry out in a sunny spot. Then put them in a deep tray and crush them with your hands or a small rolling pin until the seeds start popping out. After that, the best way to separate the grassy chaff from the seeds, Blair says, is decidedly low-tech: Use a hair dryer on cool (no heat) at the lowest airflow setting. One plant can yield half a million seeds, about 2 pounds’ worth.

Jennifer Cook

Jennifer Cook is an award-winning freelance writer who contributes to Consumer Reports on health, wellness, mind-body, and environmental topics. She lives in New York's Hudson Valley in a farmhouse built in the 1840s. An avid walker and dancer, she feels fortunate to live near wetlands and wild things, and to have easy access to culture and good food.