Kiwicha, or “the pearl of the Andes” as it’s known in its native land, is a type of grain similar to cereals, and is also known as amaranth. Science has named it Amaranthus caudatus and it’s considered one of the oldest crops in Peru. Nowadays, it has been cataloged as the best food of vegetable origin for human beings.
This grain has many nutritional and health benefits. In fact, thanks to its complete nutritional value, it was selected by NASA to feed its astronauts.
Kiwicha has also been studied for its therapeutic properties against oxidative stress, inflammation and dyslipidemia. It has so many qualities, and is extremely versatile in the kitchen. With kiwicha, you can make soups, pancakes, cookies, drinks, and pasta, among many other things.
Read on and be surprised by all its benefits, nutrition, and uses. If you’re looking for the healthiest food around then keep reading!
What is kiwicha, the pearl of the Andes?
Kiwicha is a grain that belongs to the genus Amaranthus. It dates back to about 4000 years ago and is native to the Americas, specifically Peru. According to archaeological evidence, it began to be cultivated at the same time as maize.
The three species most widely distributed throughout the world, as they are adapted to various climatic zones, are A. hypochondriacus in Mexico, A. cruentus from Guatemala and A. caudatus throughout South America. These are fast-growing plants that develop between 1400 and 2400 meters (4600 to 7900 feet) above sea level.
The main producers are Peru, Bolivia, Mexico, China, India, United States, Argentina, Kenya, Nepal, Russia and Pakistan. The grain is considered a pseudocereal, because although it doesn’t have the same genetics as cereals, it does have a high amount of carbohydrates.
Kiwicha has multiple uses:
- Human and animal food
The nutritional characteristics of kiwicha are very singular, as it contains amino acids, starches, and unique lipids that favor nutritional balance when mixed with legumes or cereals. As described by a group of experts, the composition of amaranth per 100 grams (4 oz) of grain is as follows:
- Humidity: 11,1 %.
- Calories: 350 calories.
- Protein: 13-19 g.
- Fat: 2-10 g.
- Carbohydrates: 57-60 g.
- Fiber: 2.2 g.
- Ashes: 4,1 g.
- Calcium: 247 mg.
- Phosphorus: 500 mg.
- Iron: 10 mg.
- Thiamine: 0 ,14 mg.
- Riboflavin: 0,32 mg.
Kiwicha grain contains between 13 and 19% of high-quality proteins, as it provides almost all the essential amino acids. It has the particularity that it provides the two amino acids absent in other grains, that is to say, lysine and methionine. Therefore, it can be combined with the group of cereals and legumes.
In addition, its deficiency in the amino acid tryptophan can be compensated by the contribution of cereals. On the other hand, amaranth protein reaches 90% digestion and intestinal absorption.
Starch is the main component of this nutritious grain, ranging between 50 and 60%. It acts as a thickener or fat replacement in low-fat foods. Dietary fiber is mostly of the soluble type, which also helps to lower cholesterol.
As for lipids, its fatty acids are of high nutritional benefit. Linoleic and oleic fatty acids stand out, which are related to the prevention of cardiovascular diseases.
On the other hand, kiwicha is the main plant species that produces squalene, which lowers cholesterol in the blood and has an antioxidant effect.
Among its main trace elements, we find calcium, whose values are twice as high as those of liquid milk. The phosphorus and iron content is also superior to grains and seeds. The value of these minerals favors the development of bones and teeth.
Zinc and magnesium are found in good proportion. These help to strengthen the immune system and metabolize blood sugar.
As for vitamins, the most notable are thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin. They’re used for the production of sex hormones, and for growth and metabolism.
Benefits of Amaranthus caudatus
The benefits of this pseudocereal depend on some active compounds that are part of the grain. We’ll now analyze it.
1. Reduces blood lipids
Kiwicha contains some active peptides that are able to inhibit the HMG-CoA reductase enzyme, bringing it to levels as low as those obtained with statin treatment. This enzyme determines the rate of cholesterol production. For this reason, kiwicha is used to combat dyslipidemias and atherosclerosis.
A group of experts demonstrated that feeding laboratory rats a diet supplemented with amaranth bread flour lowered their bad cholesterol, while increasing their good cholesterol. Other researchers found that the effect of amaranth flour on blood lipids was similar to that of oat flour.
2. Decreases oxidative stress
The main antioxidant compound in the grain and other parts of kiwicha is a polyphenol called rutin. Other antioxidant compounds include p-coumaric, anthocyanins, carotenoids, phenols, and beta-carotenes.
Amaranth seed fat has also shown a protective effect against oxidative stress caused by free radicals in liver cells of animal models. On the other hand, in post-menopausal women supplemented with this pseudocereal, an increase in the levels of some antioxidant substances in the body was demonstrated, while oxidative stress decreased.
3. Possible anticarcinogenic effect
Some studies have concluded that peptides extracted from amaranth are able to prevent tumor proliferation. The effect seems to be mediated by induction of cell death.
However, the study was conducted in vitro, so more evidence is needed.
In addition to kiwicha, other parts of the plant also have health benefits. For example, the roots work as an astringent for diarrhea, while the infusion of its stem is laxative.
Meanwhile, the leaves help to reduce bladder inflammation in cystitis, control blood pressure and eliminate the symptoms of altitude sickness.
Uses of kiwicha
Kiwicha is used to make a variety of recipes. For example, sweets, tortillas, soups, cookies, flakes, cereal bars, candies, syrups, and salads.
The grain should always be cleaned very well, trying to wash it several times to extract polyphenols called tannins, which give it a bitter taste. It can then be toasted to concentrate some of its vitamins and improve its flavor and texture.
In Mexico, for example, toasted seeds are ground to prepare atole and pinole. It’s a kind of mazzamora used to make tamales, which contain corn flour, stalks, and chopped amaranth leaves.
The popped grains are mixed with honey, cane honey, or chocolate and then molded to make kiwicha nougat in Peru, alegrías in Mexico and tadoos in India.
One potential use of kiwicha is to make baked goods that don’t need to be rise, as it doesn’t contain gluten. It is also recommended for mixing with other cereal flours.
The starch from this grain can be used as an additive in the food industry, as a thickener or fat substitute. The squalene, which is part of the oil, can be used in the cosmetic industry, as a lubricant and as a precursor of steroids.
Is kiwicha a healthy food?
There’s no doubt that this “pearl of the Andes” is one of the most complete grains offered by the vegetable kingdom. Not only does it nourish us with high-quality proteins, but it also offers us B complex vitamins and minerals such as iron, calcium, and phosphorus.
Kiwicha, or amaranth, is considered a complete food, as when it’s combined with cereals or legumes, it acquires essential amino acids. On the other hand, its antioxidant and cholesterol and triglyceride lowering properties justify its addition as an ingredient.