Saturday will be the fourth annual Amaranth Day in Oaxaca City, Oaxaca, Mexico, one of the several grassroots communications approaches Puente a la Salud Comunitaria has taken to raise awareness of the highly nutritious “pseudo cereal” that was a staple of the indigenous people’s diet for millennia but was outlawed by Spanish conquistadors for cultural and religious reasons.
Or perhaps it was banned because its high amount of protein fueled the Aztec warriors defending their homeland, suggests Pete Noll, the group’s executive director. Now that’s a great origins story for a grain ripe for revival!
Noll expects to attract about 250 farmers and 5,000 celebrants to the event, which will celebrate amaranth with a parade, live music, Q&As on topics like nutrition, as well as an attempt to get into the Guinness World Records for creating a 10-meter-long alegría, a sort of granola bar, using amaranth from eight Mexican states.
If all goes as it has in the past, the attendees will go back to their communities and spread the word about amaranth farming, healthful eating and community organizing the old-fashioned way.
In part, Puente’s mission is to have amaranth perceived as “the crop of now” due to its high nutritional values. But, as has been the case since two young women from the U.S., Kate Seely and Katherine Lorenz, founded the nonprofit (whose name translates into Bridge to Community Health) in 2003, there are larger objectives at stake. They include improving the health of local children, sustaining small farms in the region and countering widespread obesity in Mexico with more-healthful food.
Amaranth has been making its way into trendy restaurants up north for several years. It’s now in cereals such as and an ingredients in shakes, nutraceuticals and sports energy drinks, as well as in Kellogg’s KashiOrganic Promise Sprouted Grains. Besides the heavy dose of protein, its seeds provide high values of the essential amino acid lysine, as well as more calcium, iron, fiber and magnesium than other cereals. Its leaves are a rich source of vitamin A, vitamin C, and folate. It’s gluten-free. And studies have suggested all sorts of possible health benefits.
But you aren’t likely to see amaranth’s health benefits touted through seven-figure marketing campaigns, as Pom Wonderful has done for the pomegranate (to the point of being “deceptive,” as the FTC charged). Unlike chia seeds, it hasn’t had the benefit of being extolled in a bestselling book, "Born To Run," as an unheralded superfood. And it certainly hasn’t had the breakout acclaim enjoyed by its sister ancient grain from the Andes, quinoa.
And that’s just fine -- because there is already more demand than supply of amaranth in the region, Noll says, and the last thing his organization wants to see is local farmers not able to afford to buy the crops they produce, as has purportedly happened with quinoa.
But amaranth is certainly gaining traction here and there, and much of that is due to the very deliberate way Puente has crafted and tweaked its story in tailored radio messages reaching the 21 different indigenous groups in the Oaxaca area, as well as in social media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) and public relations outreach in North American.
“As we listened and learned over time, we started to shape the [communications] program to be culturally appropriate and more participative,” says Noll of the efforts targeted to locals. And it has been just as diligent in crafting a story that combines its social mission with the nutritional benefits of amaranth to appeal to consumers — and reporters — with farm-to-table sensibilities in the U.S.
Hope Bigda-Peyton, director of development and sustainability at Puente, and Puentes’ PR counsel, Brett Holmes, have made it a point to send out regular press releases “just to keep amaranth on the minds of different members of the press,” Bigda-Peyton says.
When news broke in 2013 that Mexico had snatched the uncoveted Most Obese Nation title from the U.S., “we decided to hop on that and send out a release saying ‘yes this is happening and we think that amaranth can be an innovative solution for nutrition and poverty in Mexico,' ” Bigda-Peyton recalls. The release also presented amaranth “not just as a food but also what it represents — a local crop strengthening local agriculture, which I think really resonates with the U.S. audience.”
Among other coverage, it generated a piece for National Geographic.
“We were already poised to position the story,” Bigda-Peyton says. “If we were just waiting for that moment to come, and starting from zero, it wouldn’t have worked.”Trust me, she knows what she’s talking about.