In the world of grains, there are a lot of options to choose from: bulgur, millet, barley, quinoa, wheat, rye, and the list goes on. Each grain has its distinct nutritional value, cooking uses, and flavor profile, so how do you know which one is right for you? And what are the specific differences between each? Well, we’re going to break it down for you. However, tackling every grain at once would be a nearly impossible task and make for quite a long read. So to make it more digestible, we’re comparing the different grains in a series of posts. We recently discussed barley versus quinoa, now let’s talk about quinoa in contrast with amaranth.
What Is Amaranth?
Most people have probably never heard of the amaranth grain, but it is worth learning about. While it has some similarities to quinoa, it also has some good qualities of its own. This ancient grain was cultivated by the Aztecs over 8,000 years ago and continues to be a native crop in Peru. It is also now grown in Africa, India, China, Russia, throughout South America, and is seeing a reemergence in North America. The amaranthus plant is often around six feet tall with broad green leaves and bright red or gold flowers made up of minuscule, grain-like buds, which produce the amaranth seeds to be consumed.
What Is Quinoa?
Pronounced "keen-whah," this grain is a seed--one of the many similarities between quinoa and amaranth, but we’ll get to that in a minute--that originated thousands of years ago in the Andes Mountains. It has been dubbed "the gold of the Incas" and is treasured by many because of its nutritional value. Quinoa is typically found in its white form, though it comes in many colors: orange, red, pink, purple, and black.The flowering plant that produces quinoa is actually in the amaranth family and is more closely related to spinach than other grains.
Seeds, Not Grains
Quinoa and amaranth may be similar in more ways than they are different, likely due to the fact that the plants which produce each grain are in the same family. In reality, because both are seeds, as opposed to grains, they are considered to be pseudocereals. This means that they are neither cereals or grains, and are more closely related to other plants, such as beets than to “other” cereals or grains.
A grain, on the other hand, is technically broken down into three edible parts: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. The bran, or the outer skin, is packed with fiber while the germ is the nutrient-dense embryo, full of vitamins, minerals, fiber, essential fatty acids, and more! Finally, the endosperm acts as the germ’s food supply and is the primary source of what we know as starchy carbohydrates. A majority of the grains we eat are also encased in an inedible hull. While some of these hulls are more easily removed than others, in certain cases, it's difficult to remove without taking away some or all of the bran and germ with it.
Both amaranth and quinoa are also gluten free foods and easily digestible within the body. But what is gluten anyway? In reality, most grains are gluten free with just wheat, barley, and rye containing gluten. However, those are the three grains most commonly found in breads and pastas, which contributes to the stereotype that gluten is contained in all carbohydrate foods. Gluten is a protein that is developed when flour and water are combined then kneaded into dough when making these foods. As a network of proteins, gluten keeps the dough from falling apart by creating the elastic texture of dough.
For most, gluten is not a dietary consideration unless they have a medical condition that prevents gluten consumption such as celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), gluten ataxia, dermatitis herpetiformis (DH), and wheat allergy. For example, individuals diagnosed with celiac disease cannot tolerate the gluten proteins glutenin and gliadin. Their bodies reject these proteins, which cause illness and severe digestive issues. Therefore, amaranth and quinoa are perfect choices for these dietary restricted individuals.
Short Cooking Time
Finally, both amaranth and quinoa have very short cooking times. This makes either an excellent choice for a quick meal. Quinoa cooks in about 10-15 minutes, while amaranth takes about 20 minutes to cook through. Though there is a slight difference in cook times, both are relatively quick as compared to most other grains.
Although quinoa and amaranth are very similar by nature, there are some key differences which must be addressed. These variances between quinoa and amaranth are important considerations when deciding which seed to consume.
While both quinoa and amaranth have a nutty flavor once cooked, the latter is much more potent. Amaranth’s distinctive flavor can be somewhat overwhelming to some. When cooking, the seeds release an intense grassy aroma which translates to a nutty, herbal flavor reminiscent of hay. As opposed to quinoa, which is mild in flavor and easily takes on the characteristics of the other foods it is served with.
Though both amaranth and quinoa are nutritious foods, they vary slightly in what they can offer.
First, amaranth contains slightly more protein than quinoa, with 9 grams of protein in a 1--cup serving, compared to quinoa’s 8 grams. That’s nearly double the amount you'll get from brown rice, oats, and whole wheat. The quality of protein in both amaranth and quinoa is also better than most whole grains that are low in the amino acid lysine. Amaranth and quinoa contain enough lysine that they both provide complete protein.
Both grains are also rich sources of magnesium and zinc and supply a boost of iron. Amaranth, however, twice as much iron than quinoa. Iron is most commonly known for its role in transporting and storing oxygen while helping to synthesize DNA, and it's a component in antioxidants that protect white blood cells working for your immune system. One cup of cooked amaranth contains 5 milligrams of iron, and the same portion of quinoa will give you only 3 milligrams.
Finally, both amaranth and quinoa are good sources of vitamin B6. Vitamin B6 helps produce serotonin, which stabilizes moods and has a role regulating sleep cycles. One cup of amaranth contains 22 percent of your recommended daily allowance (RDA) of vitamin B6, compared to 18% from quinoa. However, quinoa provides about 15% of your RDA of thiamine and riboflavin, which is four times more than you'll get from amaranth. Overall, the B vitamins keep your metabolism going by supporting enzymes which convert food into energy.
As you can see, amaranth and quinoa may be more alike than they are different. However, the variances that do exist create an important divide between the two. While both are gluten free seeds that cook quickly, they also provide distinct nutritional benefits and flavors to dishes. Consider the characteristics of each when deciding which “grain” to use in your next meal.