Chia seeds are one of the new top superfoods to become popular during the last decade and now their many nutritional benefits are catching up to a much wider audience. Most every health conscious person these days knows about chia and how they can be a great dietary adjunct to supporting long term health.
We personally started using the seeds in about 2003 when they became more available in bulk sections of large chain health food stores.
Now you see them in many commercial products such as protein bars, dehydrated crackers, granolas, kombucha drinks as well as for sale as dried seeds or ground powders.
They have certainly become one of our top favorites next to hemp seeds for a number of reasons. In a "nutshell", they have a dense amount of nutrition, very few calories and are packed with fiber, protein, antioxidants, calcium and the hard to get omega-3 fatty acids.
The chia seed is quite a tiny little thing, but when soaked in water they swell up to 10-12 times their original size, creating a gelatinous seedy gel that can be blended and used in shakes, desserts, smoothies, porridge and puddings.
Because of this they are the perfect seed to add extra creamy thickness to many recipes (or also used as an egg replacement), while simultaneously recharging and hydrating the cells.
"A healthful and interesting addition to my diet. My prediction? You will begin to see chia being added to more and more commercial products, such as prepared baby foods, nutrition bars, and baked goods." Andrew Weil, M.D
The wild chia plant (Salvia hispanica) is native to central and southern Mexico and Guatemala. Chia was cultivated for use as a staple food crop, grown next to corn, by the pre-Columbian Aztec civilization.
Chia is derived from the word "chian", which means "oily" in the Nahuatl language. The seeds were traditionally used as a flour, pressed for their oil content or mixed with water and consumed. (source)
They were used by the Aztecs as an ingredient in a corn based gruel known as Pinole and is still prepared today in modern day Mexico. They also roasted the ground seeds and made a flour known as Chianpinolli. This was further used to make tortillas and tamales. In Mexico they use it in a drink called "chia fresca", which is chia soaked in fruit juice.
Wild chia seeds spread to many desert locations of the Southern U.S. and we have actually seen it growing prolifically in areas of Joshua Tree National Park. The Cahuilla Indians of these regions used it quite a bit for medicinal purposes as well as a sustaining food source.
seeds were carried by many native tribes as a form of fuel to increase
endurance on long journeys along trade routes. The Cahuilla Indians
traveled with pouches of seeds and soaked them in gourds of water for
hydrating and sustaining energy levels.
Salvia hispanica is a member of the mint family and an annual plant that grows up to about 3-4 feet in height and produces tiny clusters of purple or white flowers at the end of its stem. The tiny oval seeds are about 1mm (very small) and are produced when it goes to seed after the warmer season. The seeds are typically multicolored and are either gray, black, white or brown.
The cultivated chia we consume today is not too far off from its wild origins. We always encourage growing your own superfoods and herbs whenever possible. Chia is one of those species that you can actually grow in your own garden in many parts of the world, generally USDA Zones 9-12.
Chia is very similar to flaxseed in that they both contain high amounts
of ALA omega-3's and also become very gelatinous when soaked in water.
They are both extracted for their oils, but flax is more susceptible to
rancidity and is extremely volatile when exposed to light or heat.
This is not so much the case with the chia seed and because of this many people have switched over to using chia more as a replacement to flax in recipes.
We actually prefer using chia seed rather than flax when making dehydrated bread and crackers. Flax is also very high in lignans, a source of phytoestrogens, which can potentially mimic estrogen in the body depending on dose amount. This may not be a good for those with a hypothyroid or estrogen sensitive health issues.
Chia is also closer to a wild food and hasn't been as heavily cultivated as the flax or linseed plant, used as a source of fiber (linen) for centuries.
Chia seeds are naturally high in polyunsaturated fatty acids called omega fatty acids. Like flax and hemp seeds, they are particularly high in the essential fatty acid omega-3 (alpha-linolenic acid or AFA). According to Nutrition Data a 1 ounce (28g) serving of chia is about 4915 mg of omega-3 to 1620 mg of omega-6 (linoleic acid or LA). This is about a 3:1 ratio of omega-3 -to- omega-6, which is very rare for nuts or seeds.
A healthy diet should consist of a proper proportion of omega-6 to omega-3's. The general standard for this is between a 4:1 or 1:1 ratio. This means that for the amount of omega-6 foods you consume you would need to eat at least 1/4 of that amount in omega-3's.
In a typical Western diet, high in refined vegetable oils, omega-6 is much higher than omega-3 at between an average 10:1 to 20:1 ratio. Too much omega-6 can cause inflammation in the body and other related health conditions.
Omega-3 fatty acids act as an anti-inflammatory and help to counteract the pro-inflammatory effects of LA omega-6 fats and their derived oils. They help to enhance cognitive function, lower blood pressure and reduce high cholesterol. Chia seeds uniquely offer 3 times as much omega-3 to omega-6. We give them a huge thumbs up for this reason.
Chia is a hydrophilic seed, which means it can absorb large quantities of water. This produces a mucilaginous gel-like coating around the seed and becomes very hydrating to the body when consumed. This is one of the reasons they are added to many commercial health food drinks.
The soaked seeds are very soothing to the mucus membranes and digestive tract, acting as a mild laxative that can be extremely beneficial to the health of the colon. Chia has a natural cooling effect on the body and is especially lubricating for the skin when ingested.
Chia is known as an "endurance food" that nourishes the cells and tissues by prolonging hydration, time releasing nutrient absorption, regulating glandular activity of the adrenals and thyroid and providing electrolyte balance.
The gelling properties of chia also help to slow the conversion of carbohydrates into sugar providing a long burning fuel source. These attributes can be beneficial for diabetics, who need to maintain blood sugar levels, as well as athletes or those who are physically active.
Chia is high in dietary fiber. Fibrous foods help to slow down the digestive process and act as a natural appetite suppressant. Along with a health promoting diet and lifestyle, chia seeds can be a great low calorie addition to daily meals for those wanting to loose excess body weight. As a mild laxative, blended chia drinks can also help to normalize bowel movements.
Chia seeds provide the body with protein, minerals, vitamins and trace nutrients. They are about 30% protein along with 19 amino acids, including all 9 essential amino acids needed by the body for proper muscle growth, tissue repair and many other bodily functions.
The seeds are a good source of calcium, with a one ounce serving size delivering about 18% of the daily requirement. They also have trace amounts of boron, a mineral that works with calcium to support bone density and the prevention of Osteoporosis.
Chia seeds are most commonly available for sale as a whole seed. They can be purchased in bulk quantities, by the pound, and remember a little goes a long way because of their hydrophilic nature. They come in both white and black varieties. The white colored seeds are great for frosting's or vanilla puddings.
Ground chia "flour" or powder is also sold these days, but for nutritional purposes we always recommend buying the whole seeds and grinding them up yourself for greater freshness.
To use the seeds, we encourage soaking them first and using the "seed gel" blended into drinks or other recipes. They are more easily digested in this form in our opinion. Experiment for yourself, however, if you really enjoy eating the whole soaked seeds.
Remember, they will absorb between 10-12 times their volume in water and in less than 20-30 minutes your jar of seeds and water will become a thick gelatinous mass.
The measurement ratio we like to use is:
1/4C seeds - 1 1/2C water
2T seeds - 3/4C water
You can store the soaked seeds in a jar in your fridge for up to 2 weeks and have them on hand whenever a recipe calls.
For therapeutic effects as a laxative we recommend 2-3T soaked chia seeds added to smoothies or shakes.
Chia seeds are a great substitute for flax and can be used in combination with other natural thickening agents, like coconut oil, psyllium seeds or irish moss.
Here are some of our favorite recipes using chia:
Visit our Superfood Evolution Ezine #36 for more on how to eat chia seeds.