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Superfood: Chia

Funny hairdos aren't all chia's good for. Ch-ch-ch-choose these little black seeds for protein, calcium, antioxidants, and a whole bunch of other vitamins and minerals.
Superfood: Chia
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Chia is going through a renaissance of sorts. No longer is it just a goofy gag gift that crowds the shelves during the holidays. The little black specks that grow lush bounties of chia-pet hair are actually edible seeds that come from the desert plant Salvia hispanica (technically part of the mint family) [1]. Way before Chia Pets, the chia seed was a go-to food in Aztec and Mayan diets and the basic survival ration of the Aztec army. And for years, people have praised the chia seed for its nutritional benefits, especially for highly active people. So maybe it’s time to take this little seed seriously.

Chyeah, Chia! — Why It’s Super

Photo by Jordan Shakeshaft

 

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 [2]. 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.

(Also Check Out: Daily Recipe: Tropical Chia Pudding)

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 [3]. 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. (DISCLAIMER: Please don’t eat a chia pet. The chia seeds that come with the terra cotta pet have not been approved as “food” by the FDA, so buy the seeds from a health-food store.)

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 [4]. 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 [5]. Before buying them in bulk, there are a few important facts to know about the superseeds.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Chew It — Your Action Plan

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 like meat, nuts, and eggs forms a complete protein [6].

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 [7]. 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. Extra extra credit: Bugs hate them, so it’s easy to find organically-grown varieties.

So maybe it’s time to reconsider the kitschy icon, and recognize the chia seed for it’s abilities other than growing green afros.

Our Favorite Chia Recipes from Around the Web

Blueberry Vanilla Chia Seed Jam via Oh She Glows
Pinole via No Meat Athlete
Mole Coconut Burger via Kath Eats Real Food
Tropical Chia Smoothie via Yummy Mummy
Red Currant and Chia Seed Cake via Tartine and Apron Strings

Originally published May 2011. Updated July 2012.

What are your favorite uses for chia? Share in the comments below!

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Works Cited +

  1. Chia (Salvia hispanica): a systematic review by the natural standard research collaboration. Ulbricht, C., Chao, W., Nummy, K., et al. Natural Standard Research Collaboration, Somerville, MA. Reviews on Recent Clinical Trials, 2009 Sep;4(3): 168-74.
  2. Salvia columbariae contains tanshinones. Adams, J.D., Wall, M., Garcia, C. Oxford University Press. Evidence Based Complementary Alternative Medicine, 2005 March; 2(1): 107-110.
  3. 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, C.E., Berra, M.A., Martinez, M.J. et al. La Catedra de Biologia Celular, Histologia y Embriologia, Instituto de Biologia Celular, Facultad de Ciencias Medicas, Universidad Nacional de Cordoba, Ciudad Universitaria, Cordoba, Argentina. Prostoglandins, Leukotrienes Essential Fatty Acids, 2007 Jul; 77 (1):21-8.
  4. Omega 3 Chia seed loading as a means of carbohydrate loading. Illian TG., Casey JC., Bishop PA. Human Performance Laboratory, Department of Kinesiology, The University of Alabama, Auburn, Alabama, USA. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 2011 Jan;25(1):61-5.
  5. Chia (Salvia hispanica L) gel can be used as egg or oil replacer in cake formulations. Borneo, R., Aguirre, A., Leon, A.E. Ministerio de Ciencia y Tecnologia, Cordoba, Argentina. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2010 Jun;110(6):946-9.
  6. Thermal and physicochemical properties and nutritional value of the protein fraction of Mexican chia seed (Salvia hispanica L.) Olivos-Lugo, B.L., Valdivia-Lopez, M.A., Tecante, A. Facultad de Quimica, Departamento de Alimentos y Biotecnologia Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Mexico. Food Science and Technology International, 2010 Feb;16(1): 89-96. Epub 2010 Feb 5.
  7. Salvia columbariae contains tanshinones. Adams, J.D., Wall, M., Garcia, C. Oxford University Press. Evidence Based Complementary Alternative Medicine, 2005 March; 2(1): 107-110.

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