Amaranth: The nightmare of Monsanto

Kenia Fita de Capdevila

          To conclude my degree in Gastronomic Sciences, I decided to write my thesis about amaranth, a pseudo-cereal known by several indigenous American cultures and considered by many a superfood. It’s amazingly easy and fun to invent nicknames for this plant. The ignored superfood. The forgotten twin of quinoa. The protein bomb. The failed superfood. The nightmare of Monsanto. Once indispensable for pre-Columbian populations, amaranth was hated by the Spanish, loved by European botanists, forgotten for nearly 400 hundred years and brought back to life to feed astronauts in space. Amaranth is a plant that can be grown for different purposes: for  vegetable production, to be consumed as a leaf similar to spinach, for grain production to be consumed as a cereal, or as animal fodder. In the last decades, other uses for the plant have also emerged. The main use is as a red dye, used in China, for example, to darken soy sauce. In India,  it’s used as a source of protein genes to develop GMOs (Chakraborty et al., 2010) and a professor in Mexico, Manuel Soriano, is using it as the base of an anti-depressant pill due to amaranth high tryptophan content[5].

          When I started my thesis, I was surprised to discover that the research is little and fragmented. It is not uncommon to bump into contradictions between authors and inaccuracies tend to shape the paradigm. The main reason lies in the taxonomy of this plant. Contrary to common belief, the word “amaranth” doesn’t refer to a single grain-producing species but to a whole genus (Amaranthus) of more than 60 completely different species. Surprisingly, it’s not uncommon to find books, or even academic papers, that do not specify the amaranth species they are talking about, creating even more confusion. In fact, the exact number of amaranthus species is not clear, research papers quote anywhere between 60 and 87. For example, the following images depict two very different species commonly refer to simply as “amaranth”: A.hypochondriacus, a species of amaranth grown as a cereal, and for ornamental purposes, and  A.retroflexus, considered one of the worst invasive weeds, resistant even to herbicides such as glyphosate (a.k.a. Round Up).,, wikipedia, UW-System WisFlora. 2016. wisflora.herbarium.wisc.eduindex.php. Accessed on January 19.;,, UW-System WisFlora.

              To make matters more confusing, the word “Amaranth”, coming from the Latin “amaranto” and the Greek “ἀμάραντος” (“amarantos”), is a term that was being used long before the discovery of America to refer to several different flowers. Poets used the term  to name an imaginary flower that never faded, for the word’s meaning is quite literally “unwilting”, from the Greek a- (“not”) and the stem of the verb “marainein” (“to die away, quench or extinguish”)[6], while several classical authors used it to refer to different plants whose inflorescence retained its color when cut and dried. Dioscorides mentioned “amarántos” as a secondary name for the Gold-Flower (Helychrysum stoechas) in his book “De Materia Medica” written in the 1st century BC; and in the Aesopica, a Greek collection of fables written in the sixth century BC, Aesop poetically weighs the beauty of a fleeting rose against that of the everlasting amaranth:

“An amaranth planted in a garden near a Rose Tree, thus addressed it; “What a lovely flower is the Rose, a favorite alike with Gods and with men. I envy you, your beauty and your perfume.” The Rose replied, “I indeed, dear Amaranth, flourish but a brief season! If no cruel hand pluck me from my stem, yet I must perish by an early doom. But thou art immortal and dost never fade, but bloomest for ever in renewed youth.” [7]

        In fact, it was not until the late 16th century that the word started to be applied to the genus now known as Amaranthus. Once the European botanists observed that the flowers, when cut and dried, was perceptibly slow in wilting, unlike the blossoms of most flowers, they named it as such [8]. Because, as we will see in the next article about the history of amaranth, although  amaranth was  never seen in Europe as a potential cereal crop, Spaniards did introduce it quite early as a very successful ornamental plant. From botanical gardens, amaranths swiftly jumped to house gardens, becoming one of the most popular ever-lasting flowers. In the New Herbal, translation of the herbarium by the Flemish botanist Rembert Dodoens, we can read: ” [sic] wemen of Italy make great accoumpt of [America amaranth] bycause of his pleasant beautie, so that ye shall not lightly come into any garden there, that hath not this herbe in it”[9].

[9] Jyotsna G. Singh. A Companion to the Global Renaissance: English Literature and Culture in the Era of Expansion. (New Castle: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2013), p. 259

[8] For a more in depth study about the misinterpretation of the word “amaranth” in botany before the 17th century, read: Boutroue, M.E. Ne dites plus qu’elle est amarante?: les problemes de identification des plantes et de leurs noms dans la botaniqued e la renaissance (2002). Nouvelle Revue du XVIe Siècle, 20 (1), pp. 47-64

[7] Laura Gibbs. Aesop’s Fables. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p.230

[6] Online etymology dictionary,


Brenner, D.D.; Baltensperger, P.A.; Kulakow, J.W; Lehmann, R.L; Myers, M.M. &       Sleugh, B.B. (2000). Genetic resources and breeding of Amaranthus. Plant       breeding review, Vol.19, pp.227-284

Alegbejo, J.O. (2013). Nutritional value and utilization of amaranthus (Amaranthus       spp.), a review. Bayero Journal of Pure and Applied Sciences, Vol. 6 (1),    pp.136-143

Chakraborty, S.; Chakraborty, N.; Agrawal, L.; Ghosh, S.; Narula, K.; Shekhar, S.; Naik, P.S.; Pande, P.C.; Chakrborti, S.K.; and Datta, A. (2010). Next-generation protein-rich potato      expressing the   seed protein gene AmA1 is a result of proteome rebalancing in   transgenic tuber. Proc   Natl Acad Sci USA. 107:17533–8

Das, S. (2013). Domestication, phylogeny and taxonomic delimitation in underutilized grain     Amaranthus (Amaranthaceae) – a status review. Feddes Repertorium, Vol.123(4),   pp.273-282

Mujica, A. & Jacobsen, S.E. (2003). The genetic resources of Andean grain amaranths   (Amaranthus caudatus L., A.cruentus L., and A.hypochondriacus L.) in America.          Plant Genetic Resources, Vol.133, pp.41-44

Laura Gibbs. Aesop’s Fables. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002)

Jyotsna G. Singh. A Companion to the Global Renaissance: English Literature and Culture    in the Era of Expansion. (New Castle: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2013).

[1] WebMD,

[2] WebMD,

[3] Cruz, A. (2015, February, 7th). Sobreproducción detiene el boom del cultivo de la chía. La República. Retrieved from

[4] The Oxford Dictionary,

[5] UNAM bulletin,