amaranth

If you’ve spent any time peering into the corners of health food stores, amaranth may be no stranger. The ancient grain, once as vital to Central and South American diets as corn, is found in a number of products from cereals to cookies, energy bars and crackers. And you may see a lot more of it soon for a number of reasons.

Corn eked amaranth out of the spotlight when the Spanish invaded Mexico some five hundred years ago. Once considered a sacred grain, it was a key part of the Mexican diet and rituals (the bloody kind offered to Aztec gods).

Extremely high in protein, amaranth is versatile as a substitute for traditional flours, animal proteins, milks and eggs. It’s a nutty, small grain that can be cooked like rice and used in just as many ways. Combined with corn, it’s a complete protein.

If its description reminds you of another popular South American grain, you’re not far off. Amaranth and quinoa, the Bolivian grain du jour, have a lot in common—particularly as a whole grain and healthy alternative to gluten, as well as a popular trend in western diets. Amaranth also boasts another, perhaps even more significant benefit than quinoa, that’s getting it a lot of attention back in Mexico: it’s standing up to climate change.

A recent story on PRI profiled farmers in the Tehuacan valley where drought is devastating corn crops, but amaranth is being unaffected by the extreme weather—even when it climbs into triple digits. Farmers have begun growing amaranth, organically too, and many have joined a farmers’ cooperative. Making the switch—or at least incorporating amaranth into their crop rotation—could be life saving for Mexican corn farmers. Climate change could make things worse in the region with farmers standing to lose as much as a one-third of their corn production by 2080. As farmers embrace this once-sacred crop, efforts are also underway in Mexican communities to help poor women begin growing amaranth in their own kitchen gardens, and bring awareness to it around the country.

But could amaranth see the same issues quinoa farmers are facing just a bit further south?

Quinoa, a long-time staple grain throughout countries including Bolivia and Peru, has become such a high-ticket export that locals can no longer afford to eat the highly nutritious grain. Instead, they’ve come to rely on cheaper grains like white rice and white bread, pasta and processed cereals available at a fraction of the price of quinoa—but at the cost of Bolivians’ health.

The United Nations just released data that shows Mexico is home to more obese people than even the U.S. And as Mexico continues to battle its taste for unhealthy foods, amaranth could become a highlighted supergrain; it could help the country reverse its health crisis—if its accessible and affordable.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Image: pride and vegudice