Monday, 3 January 2011

Amazing Ancient Amaranth Made Toxic by Modern Progress

As promised in my letter to Bill and Melinda Gates last year (2010), here is my article about amaranth.

Back in 1984, a report called, Amaranth: Modern Prospects for an Ancient Crop (the Report) was published by an Ad Hoc Panel of the Advisory Committee on Technology Innovation Board on Science and Technology for International Development, Office of International Affairs, National Research Council in Washington D.C.

One of the concerns of this group was that “[m]ost of the world now receives the bulk of its calories and protein from a mere 20 species – notably cereals such as wheat, rice, maize, millets and sorghum; root crops such as potato, sweet potato, and cassava; legumes such as beans, peanuts (groundnuts), and soybeans; and sugarcane, sugar beet and bananas. These plants are the main bulwark between mankind and starvation. It is a dangerously small larder from which to feed a planet.” Nearly 30 years later and not much has changed, certainly not for the better. And what about amaranth, the promising crop under review? Besides the odd show in health food stores or news of its weediness, it rarely surfaces to attention today. I wonder why it has it not been utilised better to combat world hunger.

Amaranth has been used in agriculture for around 2,000. It was even thought to be supernatural by the Aztecs. It does sound like a miracle plant because it grows vigorously in hot and dry climates requiring no special care, is unusually productive, resists drought, heat and pests, is adaptable, versatile to prepare as food and highly nutritious.

Amaranth seed has more protein than wheat and contains lysine and methionine, two essential amino acids that are not frequently found in grains. The fiber content of amaranth is three times that of wheat, and its iron content, five times more than wheat. It contains two times more calcium than milk.

“Amaranth also contains tocotrienols (a form of vitamin E) which have cholesterol-lowering activity in humans. Cooked amaranth is 90% digestible and because of this ease of digestion, it has traditionally been given to those recovering from an illness or ending a fasting period. Amaranth consists of 6-10% oil, which is found mostly within the germ. The oil is predominantly unsaturated and is high in linoleic acid, which is important in human nutrition. The amaranth seeds have a unique quality in that the nutrients are concentrated in a natural "nutrient ring" that surrounds the center, which is the starch section. For this reason the nutrients are protected during processing. The amaranth leaf is nutritious as well containing higher calcium, iron, and phosphorus levels than spinach”  ( Importantly especially for those in the tropics, amaranth is also a good source of Vitamin A.

Amaranth seeds can be cooked as a cereal, ground into flour, sprouted or popped. Amaranth leaves can be used the same spinach. The plants produce edible leaves within 5 weeks and a weekly supply for up to six months.

Amaranth plants are not only nutritious, easy to grow and use as food, they are beautiful too with bright coloured leaves, stems and flowers of gold, orange, red and purple. Masses of cream coloured, white, black, golden or pink seeds are produced.

Yet despite all its attributes, many of the 60 species are considered weeds and looked down upon. One such weedy type was in the news last year (2010) in Arkansas. Pigweed, the plant’s common name in the United States, is tolerant to Monsanto’s glyphosate. This is all the news I found on amaranth!

It didn’t take long into the Report to find a clue of why this plant is not more popular. Scientists needed to find a way to make it commercially viable. It’s hardly going to make lots of money when it’s so easy to grow that anyone could do it and not have to pay for it! The Report reads like a nightmare to me. Going from a picture of a barefooted African lady sprinkling amaranth plants in her garden with a little bowl of water and some twigs to the Rodale Research Center in Pennsylvania conducting all kinds of research to develop new and ‘improved’ strains adapted for various purposes including machines to plant, cultivate, harvest and thresh the crop. Uniformity and suitability for mechanical harvest and processing is not what I had in mind for development of this crop to help millions of undernourished people in the world improve their diet. I did not find Rodale Research Center on the Internet, but Rodale Institute which is about 50 miles away from where the Center used to be focuses on organic farming and refers to amaranth on its website as a weed.

To further my Internet research, I decided to check the Food Standards Agency website in the UK and found some rather disturbing information. From GM potatoes to food dye, the true value of amaranth has been destroyed or at best ignored.

The FSA tells us that “a potato that has been genetically modified with a gene from an amaranth plant to create a potato that has a third more protein than usual..” And Amaranth is mentioned on the list of current approved additives and their E numbers. Amaranth is E123.

I then came across another report, this one by the European Food Safety Authority Panel on Food Additives and Nutrient Sources added to Food (EFSA Report).  Reference in the EFSA Report is to Amaranth, but it is not the plant or seeds that are at stake, but a dye that is produced from the plant. The panel’s task was to re-evaluate the safety of this colouring substance. Specifically, E-123 is an azo dye and a scientific hypothesis has linked azo pigments with Basal Cell Carcinoma, hence the call for this scientific report. The panel can now sufficiently reassure us that the “sulphonated aromatic amines formed from Amaranth by azo-reduction do not give reason for concern with respect to genotoxicity.”

The Panel also noted that the main contributors for adult exposure to E-123 is from aperitif wine drinks and Americano. No mention is made to explain what is meant by Americano except that it is a drink of some sort. I lived in America for over 30 years and have no idea what it is they are referring to and Google does not shed light on it either. As far as I know, Americano coffee is simply coffee with milk and sugar, but that can’t be it.

At any rate, the next time you have an aperitif coloured with E-123 or an Americano (whatever it is), please think of all the work done by this panel of 19 distinguished scientists in producing a 41 page report, which entailed 90-days of scientific studies on rats, assessing previous studies from 1972, 1975, 1978 and 1984 and dividing the work up in two tiers: one for adults and the other for children, although no mention is made of the sources of E-123 for children. Then consider the people who typed up the report, printers, paper, computers and dissemination of the reports to others like the FSA here in the UK. So much work and expense for a little colouring of a small market commodity!

This is not an exhaustive search on my part by any means. However, I think there is enough information to show not only the mind-set of the industrial food industry with regards to amaranth, but also the results in real terms. What a missed opportunity for this plant as a whole food. I hope more people take this matter into their own hands and grow it for personal use as a whole food, especially in countries where it is dry and hot. As shown, the amaranth plant does not deserve the bad reputation given to it by modern societies by any means and it would be good to see it exonerated and even venerated once again.

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