In the 1980’s, the chia seed took center stage as the fun little seed that grew hair on the beloved chia pet. Fast forward to today and you will likely find that the humble chia seed has once again found its way into people’s homes, but this time it is tucked away in the pantry. Touted as a powerful “super” food, chia seeds have made a big splash in the health food world.
Although the chia seed may seem like a relatively new ingredient to us, it has actually been consumed for thousands of years. The Aztecs and Mayans were the first two cultures known to grow the chia seed plant Salvia hispanica as early as 3500 BC. In fact, the chia seed was highly prized for its nutritional value by the Mayans. The word “chia” translates to “strength” in Mayan and was touted as good source of energy for endurance runners. Chia seeds on the market today are still grown in the Mayan and Aztec regions of Mexico, Bolivia, Guatemala, and Australia.
Chia seeds are high in the plant form of Omega 3 fatty acid, Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA). According to the USDA, two tablespoons worth of chia seeds has up to 138 calories, 11 grams of fiber, 4 grams of protein, and over 15% of the recommended daily intake for calcium, phosphorus, and manganese. The fiber in chia seeds, called soluble fiber, is especially effective for lowering cholesterol. Chia seeds are a whole grain food and naturally gluten free so they are safe for those with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease.
Like most foods that claim “superfood” status, some of the health claims related to chia seeds may not live up to the hype. So far, randomized control trials conducted in humans have not been able to significantly promote weight loss with chia seeds. Like other whole grains, chia seeds may also help lessen post meal spikes in blood sugar as shown in one study that added chia seeds to bread and measured blood glucose afterwards. In another study with diabetic individuals, chia seeds also helped lower blood pressure and C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation.
The bottom line: chia seeds are a great source of fiber and omega 3 fatty acid but chia seeds alone will not promote weight loss or long term blood sugar control.
Cooking with Chia Seeds
Chia seeds are relatively flavorless so they can be easily added to a variety of dishes. One interesting characteristic of chia seeds is their ability to absorb up to 10-12x their weight in liquid. In fact, you can easily combine chia seeds and milk to create a tasty, creamy pudding that is packed with healthy nutrients. Chia seeds can also be added to smoothies, breakfast cereal, granola bars, yogurt, breads, muffins, and more.