Widely known for its role as the quirky sprout of Chia Pet fame, the chia seed’s rich history and current celebrity all but eclipse the seasonal kitsch.
Chia, native to Mexico and Guatemala, has been an important food in South America for 5,500 years and has been used historically by the Mayan and Aztec civilizations as food, medicine, art and a religious offering. This tiny seed packs big nutrition as well as popularity. Filled with fiber, antioxidants, omega-3s, and so much more, chia seeds star in almost every healthy eating favorite from muffins and energy bars to juices and breakfast bowls.
Chia seeds (Salvia hispanica) are part of the mint family. No bigger than a poppy seed, chia has the unique ability to absorb up to 10 times its size in water. Allowed to sit in water a short time, chia’s soluble fiber forms a gel, a process that may prolong hydration by helping the body retain fluids and electrolytes. It also creates a feeling of fullness, helpful for weight management. A 1-ounce serving (about two tablespoons) of chia serves up 42% DV (Daily Value, based on 2,000 calories/day) of satiating dietary fiber, 18% DV of calcium and 30% DV of manganese, both of which support healthy bones.
Tiny as they are, chia seeds contain the highest amount of essential fatty acids — 64% of omega-3 and 19% of omega-6 — of all known food sources. Omega-3 fatty acids help raise HDL in humans, which protects against heart attack and stroke (Biotechnology & Microbiology, August 2017).
High in dietary fiber, chia seeds promote weight loss and improvements in obesity-related factors, such as glycemic control, in overweight and obese people with type 2 diabetes, suggesting they may be useful as a dietary addition in the management of obesity in people with diabetes (Nutrition, Metabolism, and Cardiovascular Diseases, February 2017).
Chia seeds are now as common at the local grocery as they are at health food stores and online. Different types of seeds — black, white, milled and pre-hydrated — are available. Choose whole, organic seeds, which protect the omega-3s and vitamins and have longer shelf life. The chia’s mild nut-like flavor mixes well with a variety of foods and beverages. Mix chia with lemon or lime juice and a little sweetener to make the Mexican drink, chia fresca, or let that inspire your own concoction. Add the seeds to cereals or smoothies, or mix a healthy boost into baked goods, soups and salsas.