By Alex Tung
In this regular series we profile African indigenous crops that can improve food security and protect the environment.
Amaranth is a small but mighty crop that is largely “invisible” as far as international statistics are concerned. A vegetable indigenous to Africa, amaranth, also mchicha in Swahili, means “life everlasting” in ancient Greek. True to its name, amaranth is highly versatile – it grows easily and prolifically in the humid tropics, survives in high altitudes and is a well-known “drought crop” that thrives in hot and dry weather. There are approximately 60 recognized species of amaranth. While some species are considered weeds, almost all are grown for their edible leaves and some have edible seed. It is grown in abundance in urban areas and widely available in supermarkets.
In lowland areas of West African countries such as Nigeria, Amaranth greens are commonly eaten boiled. Its mild flavor and tender texture complements many starchy dishes well. Young plants can be eaten whole, and young leaves can be harvested continuously from mature plants. A nutritious vegetable, amaranth leaves are high in vitamins A, K, B6, C, riboflavin and folate; and essential minerals including calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper, and manganese. Due to its high iron content, it is recommended for those at risk for anemia. It is also an important source of protein. Some African populations rely on amaranth leaves for as much as 25 percent of their daily protein intake during its growing season.
With a toasted flavor similar to popcorn when cooked, amaranth seeds are small in size but a good source of carbohydrate and protein (15-17 percent by weight). It is rich in the amino acids methionine, cycteine and has the highest content of lysine compare with all grains. It also has three times the fiber of wheat. Often milled into flour, bread made from amaranth seeds is gluten free and has a rich, nutty flavor.
Amaranth has been demonstrated in various studies to contain blood pressure and cholesterol lowering properties. Consuming amaranth leaf, seed or oil may prove beneficial for those with hypertension or cardiovascular disease.
While non-edible species are disregarded as “pigweed,” amaranth, especially the Elephant Head variety, displays useful properties as a companion plant for crops including bell peppers, corn, onion and potato—It helps loosen hard soil, acts as a trap for pests such as leaf miners, and provides sheltering for beetles, predators of insects pests.
Amaranth is also grown in many parts of Asia, but according to the AVRDC World Vegetable Centre, the African lines are superior. AVRDC continues to distribute improved selections to cooperators across sub-Saharan Africa, including those in Madagascar, Cameroon and Mali. Encouraging the cultivation and consumption of Amaranth could be crucial in increasing food security and reducing malnutrition in the developing world.
Alex Tung is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.