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A close relative of pigweed, amaranth has been valued since ancient times for its nutritional and ornamental qualities. This hardy broad-leaf plant is easy to grow, a prolific grain producer, and suitable for areas with dry conditions and killing frosts.

One of the highest-protein grains, with numerous medicinal attributes, amaranth has excellent potential in health food and nutraceutical markets. Amaranth’s sweet, nutty flavor complements a range of cereal products, and its starch could replace fat in processed foods.

Although a profitable crop, expanding production could quickly drop amaranth prices, so farmers may wish to contract their acreage with one of three major companies that buy the grain.

Production notes

Amaranth is planted in late May to mid-June. The plant grows slowly until it reaches a foot high, then it grows rapidly and forms a canopy. Amaranth is a low-maintenance crop and can tolerate dry conditions, as it draws moisture from four to five feet below ground.

Because the stems and leaves hold moisture until the plant is killed by frost, amaranth must be harvested at least 10 days after a killing frost in dry weather. Traditional harvesting equipment can be modified to harvest the grain.

Production costs are relatively low, so net returns currently average about $223 per acre. However, an additional several hundred acres of production could cause a surplus and lowered prices. Amaranth’s market is limited and only a few U.S. plants process it, so most growers will also face high transportation costs.

Amaranth is common in Peru, Bolivia and Mexico, but the largest producer is China, yielding 192 million pounds per year. In the United States, about 6,000 acres have been planted in Great Plains and Midwest states – primarily the cruentus variety, which grows to seven feet. Production trials in North Dakota show yields as high as 1300 pounds per acre, but 700 to 800 pounds is typical.

Functional values

Amaranth is high in protein, lysine, calcium, iron and fiber – all useful as functional ingredients in cereal products. It is also the best plant source of squalene, a powerful antioxidant used as a dietary supplement for diabetics and those suffering from hypertension and metabolic disorders.

Amaranth oil has antibacterial, anti-tumor, and burn- and wound-healing properties. Animal tests also show amaranth lowers blood serum cholesterol, and some varieties contain up to three percent rutin.

Since amaranth starch granules are much smaller than other cereal grains, it is being considered for custards, pastes and salad dressing. Starch polymers from amaranth may also be used as fat replacers in food products.

Areas of opportunity

Producer contracts with food companies: The three main U.S. amaranth buyers are Arrowhead Mills in Texas, Health Valley in California and Nu-World Amaranth in Illinois. Although larger companies such as Pepperidge Farm use amaranth, they purchase it from the main buyers. Amaranth is used in 40 to 50 products, but demand is low, so farmers should contract directly with a buyer before planting the crop – bypassing the middlemen.

Food products: Amaranth has a sweet, nutty flavor that can be enhanced by toasting or popping seeds before milling. Breads, cakes, cookies, pasta, tortillas and crackers with up to 20 percent amaranth flour have received favorable reviews from taste panels, in some cases scoring higher than wheat products. Health Valley, Arrowhead Mills, Inc. and Nu-World market amaranth products such as cereals and snacks.

Amaranth is also used as a major ingredient in confections and can be popped like popcorn. Its tiny starch granules could replace up to 75 percent of the fat in frozen desserts or other food products.

Nutraceuticals: Amaranth oil with tocotrienol and squalene has potential in medicinal foods.

Dye: Amaranth may also be used in specialty artisan dyes, although the market is small. Red dye from amaranth leaves is used to color food and alcoholic beverages in South America and maize dough in Mexico and the southwestern United States.