Amaranth revival - Mexican farmers rediscover an ancient superfood

Amaranth amongst the the corn plants. It is traditional in Oaxaca, to grow crops in the same field. This is called the ‘milpa system'. Photo: Anna Bruce.
Amaranth amongst the the corn plants. It is traditional in Oaxaca, to grow crops in the same field. This is called the ‘milpa system'. Photo: Anna Bruce.
Mexico's conquistadors outlawed amaranth - a highly nutritious seed farmed by the indigenous peoples for millennia - due to its use in religious rituals. But it's now being hailed as a 'superfood', writes Anna Bruce, and a growing number of Mexican campesinos are once again cultivating the 'noble plant' among their corn, squash and beans.
Called huautli in Nahuatl, the Aztec language, there is evidence that amaranth has been harvested for thousands of years, and was eaten by the Mayans and Aztecs.

Amaranth has been described as one of the world's super foods, and is ingrained in Mexican history, rich in culture and nutritional value.

Although amaranth tastes like a grain and has a nutty, almost malty flavour, it is actually a seed. Likened to quinoa, amaranth is high in protein and amino acids. It is being re-introduced as a staple food to Oaxaca, Mexico, to help tackle malnutrition in the area.

The most commonly found use of amaranth seed is when it has been 'popped' - after which it sells for almost four times the price. In this form it's eaten as a cereal, or combined with honey, (sometimes chocolate), to make bars known as alegria (Spanish for happiness).

I also tried a delicious amaranth cake while in Oaxaca this summer, celebrating the second anniversary of a group of amaranth producers called Red Amarantho. The powdered seed can be mixed into flour and then made into everything from gluten free flat breads to sponge cake.

Or for an alternative form of porridge, simmer un-popped amaranth seeds can be cooked in water for 15 minutes - either on their own or together with your usual oats.

A limited diet is leading to widespread malnutrition

Oaxaca is a large state in South West Mexico, stretching from a mountainous central region, down to the Pacific coast. The population is mostly indigenous, and according to the government agency Conapo, the third poorest in Mexico.

The economy of Oaxaca is based on agriculture. However, due to the mountainous terrain this is limited and the production of food staples such as corn and beans cannot meet demand.

Oaxaca's rural communities survive on a very limited diet. This lack of diversity leads to deficiencies of amino acids and nutrients needed for growth, and can cause serious health problems.

Children and pregnant women are at particular risk of malnutrition which can be severe and irreversible, perpetuating a cycle of poverty.

Despite the health services existing in Oaxaca, they struggle to meet the needs of the state. Over 40% of pregnant women do not receive pre-natal care from people who are medically qualified.

A natural source of folic acid

Southern Mexico also has one of the highest rates in the world of neural tube birth defects. Risks of developing these are reduced by up to 75% if the mother has enough folic acid or folate in her diet, before and during pregnancy.

Amaranth is high in folic acid (lysine), a B-vitamin, essential during pregnancy. A deficiency in this vitamin can cause neurological disorders such as spina-bifida. Folic acid can also be found in liver, leafy green vegetables, broccoli and peas, although with these foods, much of it is lost in the cooking process.

In the UK, where up to three babies a week are born with spina-bifida, women are often given supplements of folic acid. This year the British government has been put under pressure to add folic acid to flour to reduce the occurrence of neurological defects.

Called huautli in Nahuatl, the Aztec language, there is evidence that amaranth has been harvested for thousands of years, and was eaten by the Mayans and Aztecs.

Amaranth is a natural way to boost the amount of folic acid in the diet. The seeds can be used as a cereal, or crushed and mixed with flour. Although it hasn't yet reached the reputation of quinoa in the health-food market, amaranth is both higher in protein and folic acid.

The ancient food of Aztecs and Mayans

The charity Puente has been working to re-introduce amaranth for the past ten years. It was founded in 2003 by Kate Seely and Katherine Lorenz. They came to Oaxaca as volunteers, and became fascinated by the potential of amaranth; for its economic and nutritional benefits, as well as its cultural significance to the area.

Called huautli in Nahuatl, the Aztec language, there is evidence that amaranth has been harvested for thousands of years, and was eaten by the Mayans and Aztecs.

One form was as 'energy balls,' made by combining crushed seeds and agave honey, or it could be mixed with human blood for ritual offerings to the gods. Amaranth was also used to celebrate the birth of new children, and a paste was made to make symbolic objects for the baby.

When the Spanish arrived in Mexico they recognised the significance of amaranth to the indigenous population. The use of amaranth in 'pagan' practices was condemned and those found in possession of amaranth seed were treated with extreme harshness. Local knowledge of amaranth production was almost lost, with long term consequences for rural communities.

Puente runs two main projects side by side, 'Healthy Families' and 'Eco Amaranth,' aiming to revitalise the understanding and appreciation of amaranth as part of the Oaxacan agricultural system. Healthy Families focuses on the education of mothers and improving malnourishment amongst young children.

This program works with women from vulnerable populations to address some of the root causes of malnutrition in their communities. Eco Amaranth focuses on training local subsistence farmers to produce amaranth. The aim is that they will be able to generate income and provide a more varied diet for their families.

'A noble plant'

Puente work with a group of local amaranth producers called Red Amarantho, who make the traditional alegria amaranth bars and other products. Last August they celebrated their second anniversary at the Oaxacan town of Etla.

It was an opportunity for growers to meet and share their products with the local community. There were talks from members of the group, and Puente volunteers were there with leaflets and colouring books about amaranth, for children at the event.

I also went out to see some of the growers in the area. One of the growers, Alba Garcia, was planting for her second harvest of amaranth. She is a member of Red Amarantho and is supported by Puente.

Alba is an ambitious farmer, growing maize and bean plants, as well as award winning hibiscus flowers. She is excited to explore the varied uses of amaranth, even making it into a jelly!

Her reasons for introducing amaranth are not mainly financial, but rather because she considers it a "noble plant". Other growers of amaranth I met make similar claims.

Don Maximiliano, a 94 year old farmer who lives near Etla, is growing amaranth for the first time. He is willing to overcome early practical difficulties, and ingrained prejudices against amaranth, to re-introduce this valuable crop to the area.

In 1977 an article in Science described amaranth as "the crop of the future." In 2014, as it is being revitalised as an accessible and acceptable food source in Mexico, it is also becoming appreciated on the global health-food scene.

Although it has been a long time in the coming, perhaps the potential of amaranth can now finally be realised.



Recipe for alegria bars

To make the traditional alegria cereal bars you need:

  • 6 tablespoons of honey
  • 1 tablespoon of butter
  • 1 cup of washed and dried amaranth seed
  • Up to 1 cup of extras, for example, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, dried fruit, flaked coconut.

1. Pop the amaranth in a skillet over medium heat (like with popcorn).

2. Mix the honey and butter, then boil the mixture over a medium heat stirring constantly with a wooden spoon for 5-8 minutes.

3. When the mixture is completely homogenous, hot and lightly browned, add the amaranth.

4. Add any 'extras' and thoroughly mix everything together.

5. Spread into a tray and leave to cool.

6. Cut into any shapes you like.



Anna Bruce is a photo-journalist based in the UK, but frequently covering stories in Mexico, looking at food culture. Recently I have been working with the First Food Artist Residency, meeting local artists and agricultural communities in Oaxaca. The aim is to promote an exchange of knowledge and creativity, with a focus on essential foods.


Text and images © Anna Bruce.

More from this author