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The Aztecs Once Revered It. Will You Fall For Amaranth, Too?

Matthew Blair, a researcher at Tennessee State University, examines different varieties of amaranth growing in the university's experimental fields.
Emily Siner
Nashville Public Radio
Matthew Blair, a researcher at Tennessee State University, examines different varieties of amaranth growing in the university's experimental fields.

If the popularity of quinoa has taught us anything, it's that Americans are increasingly open about exploring grains besides the familiar wheat and rice. Now, researchers at Tennessee State University are hoping consumers are ready to give another ancient grain a try: amaranth.

Amaranth was revered by the Aztecs in Mexico. Today in the U.S., it's mostly grown in people's backyards or on research farms, like an experimental field at Tennessee State University.

Some of the amaranth there looks like corn with a colorful, flowery plume on top. Others are more like shrubs. Matthew Blair, an associate professor at TSU, is leading a team of researchers in evaluating dozens of varieties.

Amaranth is a grain that thrives in high temperatures, is largely resistant to drought and is seen as a heartier crop than corn. Blair's team is trying to breed the best-growing versions of the crop.

"We all know how fast corn grows in the summertime," Blair says. "Well, amaranth can grow equally fast, or faster."

From a consumer's perspective, amaranth is filled with nutrients, and it's gluten-free. The raw grain is smooth and white, about half the size of quinoa.

"It's a subtle flavor, but popped it tastes much more nutty and flavorful," Blair says.

In Mexico, popped amaranth is mixed with honey and served like a Rice Krispie treat. Boiled amaranth is found in some Indian recipes. TSU researcher Lucas Mackasmiel, who works with Blair, remembers eating leaves of wild amaranth when he was growing up in Kenya.

"They would cook it in a pot, they would add milk, they would add ghee. It was delicious," he says. "I still eat it now if I get a chance to. In fact, I've picked a few leaves from here and taken them home and cooked them."

But for most Americans, amaranth is still obscure, largely relegated to health food specialty stores. In a survey conducted by the Whole Grains Council last year, only 15 percent of people reported that they'd heard of amaranth, and only 4 percent of people had tried it — which was less than farro or spelt.

Still, advocates of ancient grains, as they're called, hope to model the success of one breakout star: quinoa.

Kelly Toups, the Whole Grains Council's program director, describes the typical path to success: First, the Food Network starts talking about it. Popular recipe blogs start mentioning it. "Celebrities start experimenting with them," she says. "They show up with trend lists. Then, more mainstream chefs and opinion makers will start experimenting with them."

But there are a few extra challenges to amaranth's success. For one, Toups points out that quinoa's texture and size makes it an easy alternative to rice. Amaranth is not. It's a smaller, creamier grain, more comparable to polenta or as an alternative in risottos.

And unlike many other crops, amaranth doesn't yet have a central industry organization to market and promote it. Most amaranth growing in the U.S. happens in people's backyards, Blair says, not large-scale farms.

So amaranth believers might have to wait a while for this stardom. After all, Vogue just declared that the new quinoa is sorghum.

Copyright 2016 WPLN News

Emily Siner is an enterprise reporter at WPLN. She has worked at the Los Angeles Times and NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C., and her written work was recently published in Slices Of Life, an anthology of literary feature writing. Born and raised in the Chicago area, she is a graduate from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.