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.