The Champion Chia Seed

Chia seeds are the same seeds used to grow Chia pets, but they have recently been rediscovered as a nutritional powerhouse (especially by those selling it) with the added benefit of outstanding culinary capabilities.  Native to Mexico and Guatemala, one handful of this seed was used to sustain an Aztec warrior for 24 hours.

These black or white whole grain seeds are chock-full of nutrition: a one ounce serving (28 grams or just shy of 3 tablespoons) delivers 4 grams of complete protein and an impressive 11 grams of fiber, with only 12 grams of carbohydrate. These seeds are rich in manganese, calcium, phosphorus, and potassium. They also contain iron, selenium, copper, niacin, magnesium, chromium, and zinc, while providing among the highest antioxidant activity of any whole food, including fresh blueberries.

Good news for diabetics and those who are insulin-resistant:  studies show that eating chia seed slows down how quickly our bodies convert carbohydrate calories into simple sugars, by creating a physical barrier between carbohydrates and the digestive enzymes that break them down. This means a slower blood glucose and insulin rise, which leads to a reduction in blood sugar spikes, making chia seeds a low-glycemic index food.

Chia seeds may help with weight loss because they are low on the glycemic index and help one to feel fuller longer, as they absorb large amounts of water. Unfortunately, according to recent research, they are not as much of a weight-loss miracle as many claim. Three tablespoons of chia seeds provide about a 150 calories. While they are nutritionally-dense calories, they are not a low-calorie food, and this is part of the reason why they are not a magic weight-loss solution.

Probably because of chia seeds’ unique composition of  high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids and fiber, plus vegetable protein and magnesium, researchers at the University of Toronto report that chia lowers blood pressure, reduces inflammation and thins the blood, which can reduce the risk of blood clots, heart attack and stroke. More research is needed to confirm these findings.

The chia seed’s biggest claim to superfood fame is its high levels of omega-3 fatty acids.  It contains eight times the omega-3s of salmon or other fatty fish. Both chia and flax contain omega-3 (ALA) that the body still needs to convert to omega-3 (DHA and EPA) forms that are already found in fish. There is controversy regarding the research, and it’s not clear if omega-3 (ALA) in chia or flax protects the heart and the brain in the same ways that omega-3 (DHA and EPA) in fish does.

The Aztecs used chia as a medicine to relieve joint pain and skin conditions. Chia does have some anti-inflammatory properties, but not nearly as much as salmon, for instance.

Chia seeds have the ability to thicken, bind, and moisten foods with ease. When liquid is added to chia, it forms a thick gel similar to the way gelatin and corn starch do. This makes it a great replacement for flour and water to use as a thickener in sauces and soups – just use chia seeds or ground chia seeds mixed with liquid. This will help sauces to cling better to foods, while decreasing the fat content and adding moisture and nutrition. Chia seeds soak up to five to nine times their weight in liquid and should be soaked for about 15 minutes. The mixture will take on the flavor of whatever liquid is used. Try mixing chia with milk, fruit juice, vegetable juice, wine, stock, broth or non-fat yogurt to add flavor, nutrition and moisture to recipes like quick breads (muffins, banana bread, pancakes, waffles etc.), vegetarian chili, soups, fruit sauces, and turkey meatballs.

Ground chia seeds don’t need to be refrigerated, because their natural antioxidant content makes them stable, whereas flax becomes rancid quickly. They are easy to digest, so you don’t have to grind chia seeds like you do flax seeds, which have a hard coating. The chia flavor is bland and mild, so it works great in smoothies (unlike flax seeds) and can be sprinkled on just about anything without changing the flavor. Plus, they are completely vegetarian and gluten-free.

Chia seeds can be a bit pricey, however, and currently are only found in high-end grocery stores and health-oriented grocery stores like Whole Foods. One store in the Cleveland area (Heinen’s) sells chia seeds packaged in a 1-pound plastic container for about $11.00,  while another store (Mustard Seed) sells the Shiloh Farms brand in 8oz. bag of white or black chia for $6.50. The Spectrum brand offers 12 oz. bags of black chia seeds for $7.50. There is a another brand called Salba which uses two registered varieties of chia and are in the process of  patenting them. They claim that of the 80 varieties of chia seeds, their varieties are superior and thus much more valuable. A 12.7 oz. bag of Salba is about $16.50 and the 6.4 oz. Salba ground version costs $12.49.

These nutritious seeds do deserve plenty of attention for their nutritional qualities, despite the fact that they are over-touted as a weight loss miracle and that the research is still limited on the properties of their omega-3s. The combination of their high levels of nutrients, their neutral taste, and their physical properties make chia seeds a winner, as part of  a healthy diet filled with a variety of fruits, vegetables and fish. Keep in mind, however, that although the 150 calories provided by three tablespoons of chia seeds are quality calories, they are a calorically-dense food and should be recognized as energy that needs to used rather than stored. Take this month’s healthy challenge, and add chia seed to your diet.