Plants are essential for human existence. They are the direct source of the world’s staple foods in the form of their seeds, fruits, leaves and tubers. Others provide products or services that people depend on directly or indirectly. For instance, medicine, fodder for livestock, fiber, materials for construction, shade and so on. Traditional food plants, both domesticated and non-domesticated have been neglected throughout the world. Kenya is no exception. People do not eat enough food of all kinds. For instance, tea is replacing the more nutritious millet porridge for breakfast among many Kenyan communities, a habit that is particularly detrimental for children’s nutrition.
Amaranth is a Greek word derived from the word Amereino, meaning immortal, or not withering. In Kenyan rural areas, amaranth is known for its traditional vegetable, which grows in an open field. At least every ethnic group has a name for amaranth, for instance Kikuyu’s call it Terere, Waswahili’s Mchicha, Luhya’s Omboga, Luo’s Ododo, Pokot’s Sikukuu or Chepkuratian, Turkana Lookwa or Epespes and Teso Ekwala.
Amaranth used to be the stable food for Mexicans. After Spanish colonized Mexico between 1500 and 1600s, the cultivation of grain amaranth declined for reasons not clear. But, in the 21st century, the cultivation of grain amaranth is in the process of reemerging.
Over the last 15 years, there have been some well-executed projects in which researchers, farmers and food processors have invested imagination, time and money on this crop. Though there are over 60 species and 4,000 to 6,000 different varieties of amaranth, there are three species of the genus Amaranthus which produce large seed heads of edible, light-colored seeds (A. cruentus, A. hypochondriacus, and A. caudatus). There is no clear distinction between grain type and a vegetable type.
Amaranth is a drought tolerant crop and has the earliest maturity period in the cereal class ranging between 45 days to 75 days (Amaranthus caudatus), other varieties take longer to mature. One of the reasons amaranth does well in poor and infertile soils is because it has deep roots that can reach water and nutrients deep down in the soil. Researchers in China
have reported that the water requirement for growing grain amaranth is 42-47% that of wheat, 51-62% that of maize and 79% that of cotton. It has very few pest or disease problems. Therefore, amaranth can fit in the vast Kenyan Arid and Semi Arid zones to curb the problem of food insecurity.
Amaranth has a high nutritional value because of the high levels of essential micronutrients like carotene, vitamin C, iron and calcium. It is especially rich in lysine, and essential amino acid that is lacking in diets based on cereals and tubers. The protein found in young plants can be important for people without access to meat or other sources of protein. Amaranth seed contains more protein than other grains such as wheat, maize, rice or sorghum. It also contains high levels of minerals especially iron, phosphorous and magnesium more than what is found in animal products like milk and meat. It also has high levels of vitamin A, Bs, and E. The protein value of grain amaranth is highlighted when amaranth flour is mixed with other cereal grain flours on a ratio of 1:1 or 1:2.
The fat content in amaranth seed is high (7 – 8%) double other cereals. An utmost important constituent squalene is present with 4 – 6%, more than four fold concentration compared with olive oil. Grain amaranth is highly recommended for infants because of its protein digestibility, absorption and retention by the baby’s body system. In addition to human nutrition, amaranth can also be used as a forage crop for domesticated animals. China is already cultivating amaranth as forage in large scale.
In Kenya, amaranth is sold in some supermarkets in Nairobi and Western Kenya, but in very small quantities. Its consumption is also cited in some important institutions like Kenyatta National Hospital in the private wings and in HIV/AIDS orphaned children’s homes, where it is recommended for patients on special diet. Despite its high nutritional value for both human beings and domesticated animals, not many people know about it. There is need to educate people about this important indigenous food.
Amaranth has been found to be having medicinal values, which can reduce or combat common diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, liver disease, hemorrhage, TB, HIV/AIDS, wound healing, kwashiorkor, marasmus, skin disease among others. Amaranth seeds and biomass are rich in soluble and insoluble diet fibers important in prevention of coronary heart diseases of the colon. The compounds in amaranth can enhance human growth and development, improve general health, and strengthen immune responses to combat diseases. In situations where dietary choices are limited or when immune systems are compromised, amaranth consumption may make the difference between normal health and life-threatening diseases.