Dec. 7, 1999 Attempts to save a little-known domestic food plant species, which may provide valuable health benefits, have been threatened by recent hurricanes, says a University of Guelph researcher.
Adjunct professor Massimo Marcone, Department of Food Science, is studying the seed components of Amaranthus pumilus, popularly called seabeach amaranth. It's an ancient plant, whose closest relative, Amaranthus hypochondriacus, has been used lately by health-food advocates who extol its nutritional and functional properties. Seabeach amaranth was hit particularly hard by recent hurricanes on the Atlantic coast, making Marcone's work more crucial and pressing.
Marcone is trying to scientifically confirm the functional properties of the plant to maintain stocks of the species. This particular species of amaranth was listed as a globally threatened plant species in 1993. Its habitat is being destroyed not only by natural disasters, but also by cottage sea walls and beach erosion. Most people consider it a weed.
"There were an estimated maximum of only 3,000 individual Amaranth pumilus plants left growing in the wild," says Marcone. "However, the bad news is that virtually all known wild plant species have been destroyed by recent hurricanes. We don't have to go to Brazilian rainforests to see a decrease in biodiversity, it's happening on our own continent." Production and consumption of the amaranth grain peaked during the Mayan and Aztec periods of Central America, when it was used as a food crop and ceremonial plant. Its decline began when Spanish conquerors legislated a ban forbidding its production and use — under the punishment of death — to destroy the Aztec religion.
Amaranth has regained popularity, primarily in the health food industry. It has a large protein, dietary fibre and mineral content compared with traditional grains.
The seabeach amaranth Marcone is studying is native to beaches of the Atlantic coast. It's particularly interesting because of its salt tolerance, decreased water requirement and ability to ease soil erosion make it environmentally hardy. In its wild form, seabeach amaranth may also contain high levels of squalene, an oil lubricant used in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries. Squalene is currently derived from sharks and whales, but a plant source may decrease this marine dependency. In the U.S., seabeach amaranth is so threatened that the distribution of its seed, even for scientific purposes, is tightly controlled. Marcone managed to get a small number of seeds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to determine exact levels of their components, such as proteins, fats and carbohydrates. Each of these components has the potential for additional uses, increasing the seeds' value beyond a cereal grain alternative and perhaps making it a functional food.
"We don't know if there's anything else of value in Amaranth pumilus because it's never been explored," says Marcone. "We know it's been used for many years but we need screening to validate its benefits, and this must be done before it becomes extinct."
Marcone hopes his research will encourage the conservation of seabeach amaranth. He's now growing his own seeds to produce a sustainable population that can then be more extensively studied. If beneficial properties are discovered, a cultivated form will be developed and long-term storage of the seed can be provided. The preliminary data looks very promising for maintaining stocks of the plant.
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