Happiness is a biscuit bar

May 16, 1997

Few scientists have the satisfaction of reaching the peak of academic excellence and then putting the product they worked on in the laboratory on the market, but Mexican microbiologist Alfredo Sanchez Marroquin has done just that.

His research into two native Mexican plants, the cereal amaranth and the cactus maguey, has been recognised by the world scientific community. He has turned amaranth into a product acceptable to the Mexican trade, health and agricultural ministries, had it distributed by government nutritional programmes and exported to Latin America and the United States.

All this has been coordinated from the world's first amaranth-processing factory, located in Huixcazdha, a village in the state of Hidalgo. It boasts a research laboratory and trains peasant communities in agricultural and industrial techniques.

Dr Marroquin's research in maguey and amaranth has since won him national and international prizes in the fields of microbiology and food sciences.

Both plants are perfectly adapted to Mexico's arid regions. Amaranth, banned by the Spanish because of its Aztec association with immortality, has survived thanks to its artisanal production as a popular biscuit bar known as alegria (happiness).

The maguey cactus is made into pulque, a mildly alcoholic and highly nutritious drink which has now been largely displaced by beer, the growing of more profitable crops such as wheat and a ban on its being drunk in workplaces such as building sites.

In 1980 Dr Marroquin's National Maguey Board declared the maguey an endangered species, but protection measures were never implemented and the three maguey micro-industries all collapsed.

Undaunted, Dr Marroquin turned his attention to amaranth. Its shoots can be cooked and eaten, the seeds made into a pleasantly flavoured biscuit and, when milled, it makes a unusually nutritious flour.

It is suitable for gluten-free diets, and potentially valuable to the cosmetic industry as an alternative to sharks as a source of squalin.

Ten years on, the San Miguel factory in Huixcazdha is a working prototype of an integrated agricultural, production, technological and research system for amaranth.

The possibility for a major step forward now exists, as San Miguel has laid the groundwork for the world's first Amaranth Institute. Funding from the Mexican president will soon be sought.

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