Chia is going through a renaissance of sorts. The little black specks once known for growing lush bounties of Chia-Pet hair are actually edible seeds that come from the desert plant Salvia hispanica (technically part of the mint family). Chia (Salvia hispanica): a systematic review by the natural standard research collaboration. Ulbricht C, Chao W, Nummy K. Reviews on recent clinical trials, 2010, Mar.;4(3):1876-1038. Way before the 90s topiary, the chia seed was a go-to food in Mayan diets and the basic survival ration of the Aztec army. For years, those in-the-know have praised the seed for its nutritional benefits—especially for highly active individuals. Maybe it’s time to take this little seed seriously.
The Chumash, a native tribe that lived in Southern and Central California, ate chia seeds during lengthy runs to deliver messages between villages, believing they boosted energy. Today, some scientists still think chia can boost our athletic prowess. One theory is that chia slows digestion, so runners can get an energy boost later on.
But even for those who aren’t embarking on a 100-mile run where they’ll need that extra energy kick, chia seeds might still be worth wolfing down. Chia seeds contain more fatty acids than any other known plant. Effect of Chia oil (Salvia Hispanica) rich in omega-3 fatty acids on the eicosanoid release, apoptosis and T-lymphocyte tumor infiltration in a murine mammary gland adenocarcinoma. Espada CE, Berra MA, Martinez MJ. Prostaglandins, leukotrienes, and essential fatty acids, 2007, Jul.;77(1):0952-3278. They also have some hefty amounts of antioxidants compared to other whole food sources—even more than the oft-praised blueberry.
Ounce for ounce, chia outshines some other legendary health mainstays too. It has 15 times more magnesium than broccoli, three times more iron than spinach, six times more calcium than milk, and two times more potassium than bananas. And chia might just be a water bottle’s best friend. Chia seeds absorb up to 10 times their weight in water, which helps the human body stay hydrated longer and improves overall endurance. Omega 3 Chia seed loading as a means of carbohydrate loading. Illian TG, Casey JC, Bishop PA. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association, 2011, May.;25(1):1533-4287. It can also help transport minerals around the body, which can help reduce stress, build strong bones, and regulate the heartbeat. With their magical gelling effect, chia can even be used as an egg or oil replacer in baking. Chia (Salvia hispanica L) gel can be used as egg or oil replacer in cake formulations. Borneo R, Aguirre A, León AE. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2010, Jun.;110(6):1878-3570. Before buying them in bulk, there are a few important facts to know about the superseeds.
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While chia seeds boast some impressive nutritional benefits, scientists don’t recommend we use them as our only protein source. Two tablespoons of the poppy seed look-a-likes have four grams of protein, but it’s not a complete protein source. That means chia’s protein lacks one or more of the amino acids we need to build cells. But one study found combining chia seeds with lysine-rich foods, such as meat, nuts, and eggs, forms a complete protein. Thermal and physicochemical properties and nutritional value of the protein fraction of Mexican chia seed (Salvia hispanica L.). Olivos-Lugo BL, Valdivia-López MÁ, Tecante A. Food science and technology international = Ciencia y tecnología de los alimentos internacional, 2010, Feb.;16(1):1082-0132.
Luckily, this is one protein source that’s easy to stomach, since the human body can easily digest chia seeds. Unlike other seeds, chia seeds do not have to be ground up to be eaten. When mixed with gastric juices (yum!), the seeds form a gel, creating a barrier to digestive enzymes so the seeds’ carbohydrates break down slowly and release glucose at a steady rate. The gel could help prevent spikes in blood sugar, unlike some other carbohydrates we know (ahem, white sugar). This ‘gel when wet’ phenomenon also helps us feel fuller, as the seeds suck up digestive juices and expand, taking up some of the empty space in the stomach.
And the taste? Chia seeds are quite tasteless, actually, which makes them an easy addition to almost any snack or dish. Mix them with a favorite smoothie; let them set in almond milk to morph into a pudding-like consistency; or add them to cereal, salad, granola, or just about anything else. Find chia seeds at health markets, online, or at many bigger chain grocery stores. And extra credit: Bugs hate them, so it’s easy to find organically grown varieties.
Originally published May 2011. Updated March 2016.