An A for Amaranth

By TheHindu on 22 Mar 2017 | read

The promises are so alluring. The back stories so romantic. The reality so prosaic. Super foods are the heroes of our time. You can’t go online without stumbling on goji berries from Mongolia. Acai from the Amazon rainforest. Maca from the Andes. All promising radiant energy. All sourced from “ancient, pristine, unexplored forests”. All bristling with whopping price tags, inflated by shipping, marketing and packaging.

Look beyond the slick jargon and you’ll notice that super foods are actually the most accessible foods in any country. They’re cheap. They’re plentiful. They’re local. You just need to learn how to appreciate what’s in your own backyard. India alone has a long list of them, think: turmeric, gooseberry, tamarind, ghee, coconut…

However, smart marketing can be very convincing. Which is why Indians are now choosing to buy quinoa, flown in from across the world, even though amaranth practically grows on our doorsteps. Called the most nutritious grain in the world, amaranth grows everywhere in this country — the Himalayas, the plains of North, Central and South India, and the coastlines of the East, West and South of the country. Central to diets of traditional communities across the world, from Mexico to Russia, this hardy crop requires very little water, and provides a high yield of both grain and leafy vegetable. Which means it doesn’t need chemical fertilizers and pesticides and is therefore naturally organic.

According to Livestrong, possibly the world’s most popular online health resource, one cup of cooked amaranth contains 251 calories and nine gm of complete protein. Quinoa has 222 calories and eight gm of complete protein.

Which should you eat? World renowned seed activist Vandana Shiva, of Navdanya (A movement to protect earth’s bio diversity, which works with village communities on seed banks and genetic resource conservation) says it’s obvious. “Quinoa is imported from the Andes. Amaranth grows right here. It makes no sense to eat quinoa, when you think of food miles involved…” She adds, “Amaranth gets more nutritious as you cook it. It’s also way superior to quinoa when it comes to protein. It’s got 12 per cent calcium, compared to quinoa’s three per cent. And it’s good for you whether you’re vegan, lactose or gluten intolerant.”

Discussing how this super food is a part of our culture, she says “Every Hindu eats it when they fast, because it’s nutritious, easy to digest and even a little bit of it gives you all the energy you need. Now, it’s not in the modern consciousness. And it’s important for us to connect to our ancient history.” Mexico, for instance, is rediscovering its amaranth history. “I ate some wonderful amaranth chocolate cookies in Mexico, and was told it’s a sacred food there. When a baby is born, they make a cap of amaranth, and put it on the head — it’s their way of saying ‘Now, all the energies of the universe will connect with you.’

India’s amaranth bounty was on the decline when Navdanya, which began in 1987, began working towards its restoration. Says Vandana, discussing how the country ignores local, obvious, easy solutions, “Navdanya’s latest campaign is against GMO bananas, which claim to be a solution to iron deficiency anaemia. They’re not. According to BARC scientists, they can achieve a six-fold increase in iron content in GMO bananas. This makes it 2.6 mg, which is 3000 per cent less than the iron in turmeric and 2000 per cent less than amchur (mango powder). Safe, biodiverse alternatives are multi-fold in this country.”

As consumers, it’s our duty to protect these foods, by incorporating them into our daily diets. “I always say that the only thing you can grow by eating it is bio diversity,” says Vandana. “India has the highest diversity of amaranth in the world. We get it in black, pink, red and white. Amaranth isn’t for a niche market, and it shouldn’t be. When I was in Bangalore, I would find twenty kinds of amaranth greens in the local market. And it’s cheap. Cheaper than spinach, cheaper than any local green… Any one who says it’s just for the rich is actually promoting an ideology for the rich: It can be grown anywhere, and cooked by anyone.”

She adds, “At the end of the day, it’s all about cultural awareness. Indians keep looking towards the West for super foods. But all that globalisation has brought us so far is junk food.” It’s time to look back into our kitchen gardens, local markets and neighbourhood farms, and acknowledge the power they’ve been harbouring all along.