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.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
If the popularity of quinoa has taught us anything, it's that Americans are pretty receptive to trying alternative grains. Researchers at Tennessee State University are hoping consumers are ready to give another ancient grain a try - Amaranth. Emily Siner reports from member station WPLN in Nashville.
EMILY SINER, BYLINE: 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 of Cumberland River.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I mean, it looks almost like corn but with a flowery plume on top in red or orange or yellow. It's pretty.
MATTHEW BLAIR: It's also related to the beets, which is one reason why it has that beautiful purple color.
SINER: Matthew Blair is the lead Amaranth researcher at TSU. He says those colorful plumes are filled with thousands of tiny seeds. That's what you eat. Blair is evaluating dozens of varieties of the crop, hoping to breed the hardiest versions. He says for farmers, Amaranth is useful because it's fairly resistant to drought, and it's efficient.
BLAIR: We all know how fast corn grows in the summertime. Well, Amaranth can grow equally fast or faster.
SINER: And for consumers, Amaranth is nutrient-rich and gluten-free. Blair shakes some seeds off of the plant and hands them to me to taste. The raw grain is smooth and light yellow, about half the size of quinoa.
BLAIR: It'll be sort of milky. And...
SINER: It's a subtle flavor.
BLAIR: It's a subtle flavor.
BLAIR: Yeah. But popped, it tastes much more nutty and flavorful.
SINER: Popped Amaranth looks like miniature popcorn. In Mexico, it's mixed with honey and served kind of like a Rice Krispie treat. Boiled Amaranth is found in some Indian dishes. It has the consistency of polenta or grits. And TSU researcher Lucas Mackasmiel remembers eating the leaves of the plants growing up in Kenya.
LUCAS MACKASMIEL: They would cook it in a - like, a pot. And then they would add milk. They would add ghee.
SINER: It was delicious, he says.
MACKASMIEL: 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.
SINER: But for most Americans, Amaranth is still obscure, relegated to health food stores. Kelly Toups with the Whole Grains Council says in a survey they conducted...
KELLY TOUPS: We found that 15 percent of people reported that they've heard of Amaranth, and only 4 percent of people reported that they've tried it.
SINER: That's less than the name recognition of grains like farro or spelt, if that tells you anything. Still, advocates of ancient grains, as they're called, hope to model the success of one breakout star - quinoa. You can imagine how it works. Toup says "The Food Network" starts talking about it. Recipe blogs start using it.
TOUPS: You know, celebrities start experimenting with them. They show up on trend lists. And then more mainstream chefs and opinion makers will start - want to experiment with them.
SINER: But Amaranth believers might have to wait a while for this kind of stardom. "Vogue" just declared that the new quinoa is sorghum. For NPR News, I'm Emily Siner in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.