It’s hard to believe that 40 years ago amaranth was almost completely unknown. Except for a few pioneering scientists, the world had forgotten about this powerful little plant and its exceptional nutritional possibilities. It’s especially interesting considering the fact that hundreds of years ago everyone in the ancient Aztec culture knew about amaranth and ate it in abundance. Today, amaranth is popping up all over the place. It’s in gluten-free flours, breads and breakfast cereals, it’s popped like corn as in our recipe today and it’s even made into desserts. So how did this unassuming little grain make its way from superstar of the ancient world to a lost piece of history and back again? Let’s take a peek into the past and find out.
Over 500 years ago the Aztecs prized amaranth as a staple of their diet. In fact, the largest acreage ever grown was at the height of the Aztec civilization. They recognized its nutritional properties and ability to give a person strength and energy. Indeed, to the Aztecs the grain was so prized it was believed to provide “supernatural powers” and was included in religious practices and ceremonies. During the ceremonies it was “mixed with human blood, formed into cakelike replicas of Aztec gods and fed to the faithful.” Another account maintains the amaranth was combined with honey, not blood. Whatever the concoction, amaranth held a vital place in Aztec culture. While the Aztecs might not have known the science behind this “supernatural power,” today we recognize amaranth as a “supergrain” containing “all the essential amino acids” as well as lysine, calcium and magnesium.
When Cortes and the Spaniards arrived in the New World, they took one look at how the Aztecs were using amaranth and banned it outright. The Catholic Spaniards believed it was a heathen and evil food and so they burned all of the fields and forbade anyone to grow the crop. There were severe punishments if one was caught with the outlawed grain, including the possibility of losing a hand. Despite the attempts by the Spaniards to completely eradicate amaranth, the persistent grain would not fade into nonexistence. Quietly, it was passed down from generation to generation until a mere handful of farmers continued to grow the plant in modern times. Then, sometime around the 1970s, scientists began looking for “promising plant resources heretofore unknown, neglected or overlooked’’ and they found species of amaranth growing around the world in Asia, Africa and the Americas. So began the reclamation of amaranth of its rightful place within earth’s nutritional bounty.
Today, amaranth has made a major comeback. As paleo, primal and gluten-free diets become more and more popular, people are turning to the once-forgotten grain as a replacement for wheat, oats and other banned starches. And there’s even more to this supergrain of old. Amaranth is now grown around the world not only for food, but also as a beautiful, ornamental plant with green, red or purple flowers. Holding their blooms even if dried, the “never fading” flowers have come to symbolize the resilience of amaranth and its enduring mark on history.
5-Minute Amaranth Popcorn
*Recipe courtesy of Food52
- 1 cup of amaranth (uncooked)
- 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil
- sea salt (sprinkle of)
- Heat a dry skillet over medium high heat.
- When skillet is hot, pour 1/8th of a cup of amaranth on to the skillet and shake the skillet gently until amaranth start to pop and turn white. Keep shaking until all the grains have popped, then quickly transfer to a heat-proof bowl before they begin to burn.
- Continue with remaining uncooked amaranth until all is popped.
Drizzle olive oil and sprinkle sea salt onto popped amaranth, stir, and enjoy!
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 Brody, J.