May 2014


Although several species of amaranto are considered weeds, people around the world use the plant as a leaf vegetable, cereal, in soups, cakes, cookies, bread, and even as an ornament! Cochabamba has lots to o¡er with its multifunctional plant, amaranto, no matter if you want something for dinner or have a craving for something sweet. And guess what?! It's really healthy!

By: Elise Smines Eriksen
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Stavanger - Norway

Ready to eat “Pop de Amaranto”
Photo: Elise Smines Eriksen

An Aztec and Incan importance

The word amaranto – in English amaranth – comes from the Greek word amaranton, meaning “unwilting” or “the never fading.” The word was applied to amaranth as the plant would stay green and healthy for a long time, and therefore became a symbol of immortality. Its origin is unclear and difficult to track down, but most species are believed to have originated in the Mexican and Peruvian valleys, where it was a very important part of the Aztec and Incan diet and culture. The Aztec month of Panquetzaliztl, dedicated to the god Huitzilopochtli, was one of the more important Aztec festivals, and the people prepared for the whole month by fasting or eating very little.

Amaranth is commercially cultivated and sold throughout many countries

A statue of the god was made out of amaranth, seeds and honey, and at the end of Panquetzaliztli it was cut into small pieces so that everyone could have a little piece of the god. Amaranth also played an important role in the Incan empire as the food that was consumed for its excellence. It is known that Incas also used it in religious ceremonies, and saw it as a blessing from mother earth because of its medicinal and nutritional qualities.

When the Spanish arrived and saw the importance the plant had in the Incan society, they regarded it as a pagan act that should be punished, and banned it for all to consume and use in their culture. The same thing happened in Mexico, where the Spanish used the same system to banish the statues and figures made of amaranth, and overall prohibited them from planting and consuming the plant and seeds. But the amaranth lived on and was consumed in secrecy by both the Incans and Aztecs, and today you can find it in stores and markets all over the world.

But what is amaranto?

Amaranto is a rapidly growing plant with leaves, stems and purple, red, green or gold flowers. It is quite beautiful to look at. The main stem sometimes measures up to around 90 cm, which allows it to create colourful fields. In Bolivia, the amaranth is grown almost exclusively in the valleys, in warm areas around Tarija and Cochabamba, but mainly in the provinces of Sacaba and Angostura. It prefers high altitudes to low, but it is impressively adaptive and can grow well in wet environment. It looses soil with drainage at almost any altitude and in just about any temperate climate. In addition, the plant lives a long life, which just adds up on the positive qualities of the amaranth.

“The food of the Andes”
Photo: Elise Smines Eriksen

Now the amaranth is commercially cultivated and sold throughout many countries including India, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan and the Caribbean. In many South American countries, you can find it sold on the streets. Most often having been popped like popcorn. In India, Mexico, Nepal and Peru, it´s a traditional ingredient for breakfast porridge. In Mexico, the most popular use of the grain is to pop them, mix them with honey and maybe some nuts or puffed rice, and serve as a sweet candy-like confection called alegría. Just as they did in ancient Aztec times. On the day of the dead, el dia de la muerta, the Mexicans also make alegría-skulls of amaranth, candy and nuts. In Cochabamba you can find amaranto in its usual seed form at La Cancha market, and sold in the streets as candy or energy bars under the name alegrías.

Cooking amaranto

The amaranth is used in its entirety: the plant itself is used as a vegetable for animals. The grain can be used in many dishes such as soups, cakes, cookies, breads, and breakfast cereal. Amaranth can be cooked in the same way as rice, or in combination with rice. This is a good way to try amaranth if you’ve not eaten it before. To obtain optimum nutrients from the grain, it is recommended that amaranth be soaked for 8 -10 hours. Cooked amaranth has a sticky texture that is quite different to the more fluffy texture of most grains we are familiar with. Care should be taken to ensure it is not overcooked, as it can become gummy.

The flavor is mild, sweet, and nutty, with quite a malty taste. It is a good food to cook for breakfast, and may be soaked and/or cooked in apple juice for variety, and sweetened to taste. As it is a fairly delicate grain, amaranth keeps best if stored in a tightly sealed container, such as a glass jar, and then kept refrigerated. It is best to use amaranth within 3-6 months of purchase.

Nutritional benefits

Amaranth is one of the most nutritious plants in the world. Botanists and nutritionists who have studied this plant, found that it has great nutritional value and is especially high in protein, calcium, and vitamin C. Toasted amaranth seeds provide a superior source of protein, which can satisfy most of the recommended serving of protein for children.

A healthy choice
Photo: Elise Smines Eriksen

Among its main components is also lysine, which is necessary for the construction of proteins in the body. Amaranth has twice as much lysine as wheat, three times as much as corn, and as much lysine as found in milk. Amaranth has also dethroned milk as the king of calcium. This is because 100 grams of amaranth contain twice the amount of calcium than the same amount of milk. Calcium is the main contributor to strong and healthy bones.

Amaranth is also good for your heart. The whole grain has shown potential as a cholesterol-lowering food in several studies conducted over the past 14 years. The oils in amaranth have been shown to help treat those with hypertension and cardiovascular disease as well as being a preventative for those issues. Regular consumption of amaranth can reduce cholesterol level and lower blood pressure. Some research has even shown that grain amaranth shows promise in prevention of premature graying of hair! Last but not least: it´s naturally gluten-free. Good news for the gluten-allergists as well as the gluten-free diet enthusiasts!

Whether you are a lover of cereal, like to bake, make soups, or have a sweet tooth, the amaranth is one of the most nutritious ingredients you can pick out of your options of plants, seeds, and sweets. With a high number of vitamins and an impressive amount of protein, amaranto is headed toward becoming the food of the future all over the world.

Extract on Coff€ee
The coffee is originally from Arabia. Farming coffee was introduced in America around 1500 by Spanish conquistadors who, due to Arab influence in the peninsula, had a traditional attachment to this drink. After the conquest of America, the first plantations were introduced in Central America, careful as to not carry them over to other areas, ainly to the tropics of South America, avoiding competition. The Hispanic control over the cultivation of co¡ee would be broken by Portugal by introducing this plant to Brazilian colonies.
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