Chia Seeds; All Good, No Downside

Chia seeds; I looked high and low and I only learned great things about Chia seeds.

Although, they have been around for centuries, they appear to be all the buzz right now. Most of us automatically hear the Chia Pet jingle when we think of Chia but I have learned that there is a lot more to this little seed.


Chia Seeds; a Little History

A good friend of mine handed me a little baggy of Chia seeds last summer (2010), said she had read about them in a fitness magazine and was going to try them. (I, of course, went off singing the Chia Pet jingle.) Since then, I have taken the time to learn what I could about these precious little seeds.

Chia is a species of flowering plant in the mint family and is native to central and southern Mexico as well as Guatemala.

Evidently most pests do not like Chia so they are easy to grow organically. It was cultivated by the early Aztec and Mayan cultures and was quite valuable to them for several reasons. I read on Dr. Andrew Weil's website that the Aztec used Chia medicinally to stimulate saliva flow and to relieve joint pain and sore skin. It was also the basic survival ration of Aztec warriors; one tablespoon was believed to sustain an individual for 24 hours.

Chia seeds placed in water or fruit juice are consumed in Mexico and know as “chia fresca.” I read about this similar use, although I think they added lime juice, in Christopher McDougall's amazing book, Born to Run . In it, the concoction was referred to as “iskiate.” As I will elaborate later, chia, when soaked in water, becomes very gelatinous.

In Born to Run , McDougall is in the Copper Canyons of Mexico and is handed a tin cup of iskiate to help him with his endurance and strength. His description is pretty funny (and rather dead-on) so I have to share it. (I would highly recommend this book especially if you are a runner or someone who is simply curious.)

“The cup was full of gooey slime that looked like rice pudding without the rice, lots of black-flecked bubbles I was pretty sure were frog eggs in midhatch.” McDougall claims that the drink gave his legs strength as he and another athlete were making a long climb out of a canyon.

Chia Seeds; The Nutrients

Chia seeds are considered a superfood and, although I haven't really noticed a definitive taste, it is said that they have a slightly nutty flavor. They are an even better source of omega 3's than flax and unlike flax seeds, they do not need to be ground to receive their nutritional benefits. Remember that omega 3 fatty acids reportedly protect against inflammation and heart disease.

Chia seeds are also loaded with antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, protein and fiber. Dr. Oz says they have “the highest antioxidant activity of any wholefood – even more than fresh blueberries.” I found the list of minerals found in Chia seeds to be pretty impressive as well. They include calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, manganese, copper, niacin and zinc.

Chia Seeds; Health Benefits

Aside from the obvious health benefits of eating nutritious wholefoods, there are a few other reasons that Chia seeds might benefit us. I already mentioned the anti-inflammatory affect and heart disease prevention.

Here's an interesting one. Researchers believe that the gel that forms when chia seeds are soaked in a liquid (they can hold 10x their weight in water) also forms in the stomach. They believe that this gelatinous material slows down the rate in which our bodies convert carbohydrates into simple sugars, thus preventing or reducing sugar spikes. Therefore, the thought is that chia seeds would be beneficial for diabetics. My thought is that maintaining an even blood sugar level and consequent energy level would benefit the rest of us as well.

I also read that the chia seed gel that forms in our digestive tract helps us to feel full. Most high fiber foods have this side affect. The benefit is that, if you feel full, you will consume less calories, which would be helpful for those of us trying to maintain our ideal body weight or to lose body fat.

There were a few other positive claims that I found on the internet but I couldn't find reported studies. One is that the hydrophilic (strong affinity for water) nature of chia seeds will help an athlete stay hydrated. I would assume these would be pre-soaked but it didn't say. Another is the idea that chia seeds will enhance one's endurance. It sounds win-win but you'll have to decide this one on your own.

Chia Seeds; How to Use Them and Where to Find Them

It seems obvious to me that these little chia seeds pack quite a punch. That little baggy of seeds my friend gave me a year ago are long gone. In fact, we have consumed just over six pounds of chia in the last year.

We add them primarily to our oatmeal and smoothie recipes. We have also sprinkled them in a bowl of cold cereal and I even added them to the top of my rice cake with peanut butter the other day.

According to my reading, the soaked seeds can be used in gruels, porridges and puddings. Ground chia seed can be used in baked goods such as breads, cakes and biscuits. Chia sprouts can be used just as you would use alfalfa sprouts—in salads or sandwiches etc.

How long do you soak them? For the recipes I just mentioned, I read anything from 5-30 minutes. I usually just toss them in after I have cooked my oats or as I am adding ingredients to my smoothie recipe and don't give them any “soak” time. More recently, I have tried letting the chia seeds soak about 20-30 minutes in my smoothie water (step one) while I got ready for work then made the rest of it. I think the smoothie texture is creamier when done this way but I love them either way.

Buying chia seeds can be a little expensive. I first found them at our local Fred Meyer in the natural food section. (Do not swipe the seeds out of your child's Chia Pet as they may not be food-grade.) They were in with the bulk spices and were just over $17.00 a pound. (Yikes! Things are usually higher in Alaska but that was high.)

Since then we have started ordering organic chia seeds from Nutiva. Their 3 pound bag is $26.99 but they had it on sale, recently, for $19.99.

Although I read that chia seeds can be stored for a long time without becoming rancid, we store our big bag in the freezer and keep an easily accessible jar in the refrigerator.

Again, I believe organic wholesome foods that keep my family healthy are a worthy expenditure. I will gladly forego the cable TV or frequent meals out any day for real food. (Thankfully, I don't really like those things anyway!)


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