Nutritious grain risks extinction

Despite its name, seabeach amaranth (Amaranthus pumilus) hasn’t been enjoying much of a leisurely oceanside existence. The little-known grain was listed as a globally threatened plant species in 1993. Now, a Canadian food researcher at the University of Guelph is working to maintain seed stocks of the North American plant.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, amaranth contains three to five times the nutrients of other grains, such as wheat, rye or rice. It has more calcium than milk and three times as much iron as wheat. It also contains high levels of lysine, an amino acid lacking in all other main cereal crops. When used in combination with other grains, it delivers protein equal to meats.

But it’s a plant in big trouble. Its habitat is being destroyed not only by natural disasters such as the recent spate of Atlantic coastal hurricanes, but also by cottage seawalls and beach erosion. Most people consider it a weed.

Habitat destroyed
But amaranth has found a friend in Massimo Marcone. He’s a professor in the Department of Food Science at the University of Guelph in Ontario. Marcone is studying the seed componentsf the ancient plant.

The wild Amaranth has a close relative, Amaranthus hypochondriacus. It’s this plant which has been used lately by health food advocates. They extol its nutritional content and the possibilities for use in everything from infant formula to snack foods. Marcone is trying to scientifically confirm the functional properties of the plant. He wants to maintain stocks of the species, which have swindled to about 3,999 individual Amaranth pumilus plants left growing in the wild.

"Virtually all known wild plant species have been destroyed by the recent hurricanes," says Marcone. "We don’t have to go to Brazilian rainforests to see a decrease in biodiversity – it’s happening on our own continent."

Aztecs used amaranth
Production and consumption of the amaranth grain goes way back. It peaked during the Mayan and Aztec periods in Central America, where it was used as a food crop and ceremonial plant. Its decline began when Spanish conquerors legislated a ban forbidding its production and use – under punishment of death. They did it to destroy the Aztec religion.

Amaranth has regained popularity, primarily in the health food industry. It contains a large amount of protein dietary fibre and minerals, compared to traditional grains.

The seabeach amaranth Marcone is studying is native to beaches of the Atlantic coast. Its salt tolerance, decreased water requirement and ability to ease soil erosion make it environmentally hardy. In its wild form, seabeach amaranth can also contain high levels of squalene, an oil lubricant used in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries. Squalene is currently derived from sharks and whales. A plant source could decrease this marine dependency.

Tight control of seeds
In the United States, seabeach amaranth is so threatened that the distribution of its seed, even for scientific purposes, is tightly controlled. Marcone managed to get a few seeds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to determine exact levels of their components, such as proteins, fats and carbohydrates. Each of these components has the potential for additional uses, increasing the seeds’ value beyond a cereal grain alternative and perhaps making it a functional food.

"We don’t know if there’s anything else of value in Amaranth pumilus because it’s never been explored," he says. "We know it’s been used for many years, but we need screening to validate its benefits, and this must be done before it becomes extinct."

Marcone hopes his research will encourage the conservation of seabeach amaranth. He’s now growing his own seeds to produce a sustainable population that can then be more extensively studied. If beneficial properties are discovered, a cultivated form will be developed and long-term storage of the seed can be provided. The preliminary data look promising for maintaining stocks of the plant, he says.

This story originally appeared in Research, a publication at the University of Guelph.