Amaranth, commonly known as rajgira (king seed), ramdana (seed sent by God) and keerai, is regaining popularity in India. Believed to be of Indian origin, the grain is from America. Native to the ancient Aztec and Inca civilisations, amaranth was cultivated in the Andes mountains and in Mexico. With time, Amaranth faded into obscurity, as staple crops such as corn and wheat cultivation took over.
The American amaranth underwent a remarkable migration to Asia. In the last century, it became increasingly popular among hill tribes in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Tibet and China.
Considering its nutritional properties, it is not difficult to understand why it is called the "third millennium grain". One of the most striking features is its exceptionally high protein content and quality. Unlike most conventional grains such as wheat, rice and corn — which are low in lysine — amaranth contains a balanced set of essential amino acids, making it an unusually complete protein source among grains.
Considering its high protein content, it is categorised as a pseudo-cereal. However, due to its readily digestible starch, it has a high glycemic index. To obtain maximum benefits, it is best combined with nuts, seeds, pulses, legumes and vegetables. In addition, amaranth is a relatively a good source of cholesterol-lowering soluble fibre, calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc, vitamin A, C and several B vitamins. It contains about four times as much calcium as wheat and twice as much iron and magnesium. Flavonoids (such as rutin and some phenolic acids as gallic acid, p-Hydroxybenzoic acid and vanillic acid) with anti-oxidant effects also occur in amaranth seeds and sprouts. Amaranth is gluten-free and easy to digest.
The health benefits attributed to amaranth include decreasing plasma cholesterol levels protecting the heart, stimulating the immune system, exerting an anti-cancer activity, reducing blood glucose levels and improving conditions of hypertension and anaemia. In addition, it has been reported to possess anti-allergic and anti-oxidant properties. Most of these properties are explained by the presence of bio-active compounds. Unsaturated fatty acids in amaranth may contribute to cholesterol lowering effects. Being a good source of magnesium, which helps relax blood vessels and prevents constriction and rebound dilation, it helps fight migraines.
Research has suggested that the amaranth grain can be used in the development of non-allergenic food products, with an added potential for use in fighting allergies. Amaranth can be baked, steamed or cooked as a cereal, ground into flour, pop like corn, sprout or toast, added to salads, casseroles, stir-fries, desserts or can even thicken your soups and stews. Amaranth flour can be added to breads, rotis, flour mixes, cookies, porridge, health bar or as fillers, toppings and beverages. Sprouting these seeds further increases their nutritional value. Sprouted seeds can be added to salads or juices. Amaranth, the nutrient-rich grain makes an excellent choice for everyone, especially for individuals with gluten sensitivity, irritable bowel syndrome and wheat intolerance. Future research should be directed to epidemiological studies towards understanding the mechanisms of action and determining the minimum amount of amaranth that should be consumed in the diet in order to derive its benefits.