The Amaranth solution

How an Aztec superfood could help Mexico fight obesity

How an Aztec superfood could help Mexico fight obesity
Workers at Bio-Gramin, an amaranth factory in Santiago Tulyehualco, Mexico, prepare churritos.


Obesity in Mexico

Part two in a three-part series about obesity in Mexico.

They’re traditional sweets, made from popped amaranth seeds, specked with peanuts and raisins, offered in flavors that run from coconut to Neapolitan, choco-mint to strawberry. The alegrías (which means “joy”) catch customers’ eyes with snow-cone-bright colors and cotton candy pastels.

So it’s hard to align this sweet snack with its culinary history, based on an ancient grain believed to have been used in Aztec sacrifices of young virgins. The amaranth was mixed with honey, sculpted into deities and then broken up and received much like Holy Communion, with worshippers eating the “bones’’ and “meat’’ of the gods.

Bet you can’t eat just one.

Santiago Tulyehualco, a rural community outside Mexico City, is famous for its amaranth snacks. Besides the alegrías, there are stacks of hockey-puck-shaped disks called ruedas, crunchy cookies and moist muffins, cartoonishly bright obleas, which look like fluorescent tortillas, and even edible amaranth Virgins of Guadalupe.

“It’s a part of Mexican culture, because the Aztecs ate it, along with beans and corn and chia. It was part of their basic diet,” said Karina Martinez de la Rosa, 35, a third-generation amaranth producer whose chia cookies with amaranth are hot sellers in the bustling Casahuates co-op shop run by her aunt and uncle.

Mexico has assumed the dubious distinction of being one of the fattest countries in the world and the No. 1 per capita consumer of soda, and it isn’t hard to see why. Coca-Cola and Cheetos have penetrated every corner of the country, from Tijuana to Chiapas, where vendors hawking Mexico’s famous vitamin T (tacos, tortas and tamales) and convenience stores stocked with comida chatarra (junk food) are seemingly infinite and omnipresent.

In the face of a global nutrition transition — from traditional-agriculture-based diets to what obesity experts have labeled an obesigenic and toxic environment, the amaranth producers, or amaranteros, of Tulyehualco hold firmly to their community tradition while innovating to meet market demands. Amaranth, they believe, represents an opportunity for Mexicans to recover their traditional diet and reclaim their cultural identity.

Amaranth products for sale at a wholesale outlet in Tulyehualco. (Click to enlarge images)

Amaranth is one of the world’s oldest food crops. Archaeologists have traced it to Puebla, Mexico, around 4,000 B.C., but believe it originated in Central or South America. It was consumed heartily by the Aztecs, who called it huahtli, but later prohibited by the Spaniards because of its use in religious rituals.

Studies have shown it to have cancer-preventing, anti-inflammatory and cholesterol-lowering properties. It’s relatively high in protein as well as lysine, an amino acid absent from many other grains, and it has nutritionally significant levels of vitamins C and A. It can be used as a supplemental flour in tortillas, breads, cookies, pasta and marzipan; some varieties are gluten-free.

“We believe it is a superfood,” said Pete Noll, the executive director of Puente a la Salud Comunitaria (Bridge to Community Health), a Oaxaca-based nonprofit that works toward food sovereignty in rural communities in Mexico. He said amaranth’s high protein content and low cost make it especially promising for low-income communities that suffer the “dual burden” — a tendency to be malnourished at an early age, which leads to a higher propensity for obesity in adulthood. Amaranth “has a unique fit into this enormous food crisis and health care crisis in Mexico,” he said.

While most of the products for sale in Tulyehualco are snacks and seemingly not-so-healthy sweets — tabiques, huaraches, galletas, bombons, lunitas, charolas, mueganos — the amaranteros say the products are healthy because they are all natural.

Puente promotes including more amaranth in diets, without the sweeteners, but doesn’t discount the value of alegrías in bringing recognition of the grain to a broader audience.

“The cultural aspect of alegrías is kind of an entry point,” said Noll. But if amaranth is used as a significant part of one’s diet, it should be used in health food, with no added sugar.

Amaranth fields in Santiago Tulyehualco, left, and harvested amaranth grains, right. (Click to enlarge images)

In addition to their retail offerings, the Tulyehualco amaranteros say they use the grain at home in everything from breads and shakes to tuna salad, meatballs and stews. The iron-rich leaves can also be cooked as a vegetable, and the stems used to feed animals.

“In Mexico City very few people know that it can be eaten in food. And how delicious it is,” said Manuel Castillo, a local amarantero.

While many of the bulk customers at the co-op shops head to Tulyehualco from Mexico City and neighboring states like Guadalajara and San Luis Potosi, the grain is unfamiliar to Mexicans in many other parts of the country.

It’s what Fernando Manzo Ramos, a professor of sustainable agriculture and development at Colegio de Posgraduados, calls an orphan crop.

“There are crops very important for countries and societies, like corn in Mexico. But amaranth, there is not an interest in terms of huge companies trying to sell it or the government trying to integrate more production … like they will do with pork or eggs,” he said. “Nobody cares about the product except those who produce and eat it.”

Those who produce, transform and eat amaranth — despite a scarcity of government subsidies for the native crop — believe that by doing so they are safeguarding a local and national tradition.

“It’s something the Aztecs used as a delicacy for the people high up, the kings,” said Castillo. “Our ancestors protected the seed, not knowing the nutrients that it had.”

After harvesting, the amaranth grains are cleaned and dried. (Click to enlarge images)

Scholars say that amaranth was originally sold by only the poorest families in Tulyehualco. In the 1960s those families would make the alegrías in their kitchens and travel to markets or festivals for a day or two at a time to sell them in order to gather the necessary cash for a certain expense, such as school tuition or a home repair.

From the 1970s through the 1990s, more families supplemented their regular work by making amaranth snacks in small workshops. They kept their recipes closely guarded. Eventually families turned to full-time production, seeing in amaranth an opportunity for sustainable employment for all their members. The number of products multiplied, and families set up small shops to cater to local retail buyers and out-of-town wholesale buyers who resold the products in schools and offices.

As the demand for amaranth grew, families became more business savvy and formed co-ops that enabled them to finance business improvements — such as new equipment, more hygienic practices, better training — and to negotiate with local and federal development programs, research institutions and nonprofit organizations.

“The majority of the town, of the families, are dedicated to this,” said Rosa Maria Pérez, who with her husband, Encarnación de la Rosa, runs the Iztacoatl amaranth co-op, in which family members oversee the entire production process. “We plant it, we grow it, we harvest it, and obviously we transform it.”

With growing domestic demand for alegrías and other amaranth sweets, the Tulyehualco artisans now source much of the amaranth they use from farmers in nearby Tlaxcala state. Noll estimates there are about 25,000 acres of amaranth fields across Mexico — enough to cater only to local demand. But he’s confident that will change.

Workers at Bio-Gramin lay out churritos, a fried mixture of amaranth in cereal form, amaranth concentrate, corn dough, salt, and amaranth flour. Guadalupe Hernandez de Jesus, 48, prepares chocolate ruedas at an amaranth workshop in Santiago Tulyehualco. (Click to enlarge images)

“To me, it’s only a matter of time before it’s going to become popular in the U.S., and Western markets drive a lot of what other countries produce,” he said.

Amaranth growers, producers and researchers are working together to figure out how to enter new markets like natural food stores and how to export organic amaranth seeds and flour to be used in conventional products.

But among the co-ops in Tulyehualco, there are closely guarded recipes and a constant competition to come up with the next new presentation to distinguish their products from the others.

“There is a whole lot of competition,” said Pérez, “so what we do is keep innovating so we don’t depend on only one product.” She said her store offers 35 to 40 products made from amaranth.

Uriel Molotla has been refining the recipe for his latest product, crunchy chili-covered churritos reminiscent of commercially produced spicy fries. They’re made from corn, wheat, amaranth, cactus and textured soy, then fried in vegetable oil and flavored — not exactly nutritious, but more natural than Cheetos.

At Bio-Gramin, Manuel Molotla de la Rosa, 58, adds chili powder to piled churritos. (Click to enlarge images)

“We have a very bad problem with obesity right now in Mexico. So our main objective was to make a product that’s a kind of snack but nutritious,” he said, standing outside his small, shedlike factory, where workers shake red chili powder over the just-fried sticks and put them in family-size bags.

His two adult children also work for the family business.

“Amaranth is an essential way for our young people to see an opportunity for their personal and economic well-being. But the main thing is personal — to feel satisfied by what you’re doing is very important for each one of us,” said Molotla, emphasizing how the co-ops keep family members living and working closely together. “I believe that’s very good for us.”

For Pérez and de la Rosa, it’s also a source of great pride in their community’s history.

“It’s important to us because if the tradition is lost, then the town won’t have any identity,” said Pérez. “The tradition comes from our ancestors. And precisely for that, we don’t want it to be lost.”

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