Nutritious and easy to prepare, chia is an edible seed that comes from the desert plant Salvia hispanica, a member of the mint family that grows abundantly in southern Mexico. You may have seen chia sprouts growing on the novelty planters called Chia Pets, but historically, chia seeds have been the most important part of the plant. In pre-Columbian times they were a main component of the Aztec and Mayan diets and were the basic survival ration of Aztec warriors. I’ve read that one tablespoon of chia seeds was believed to sustain an individual for 24 hours. The Aztecs recognized the medicinal benefits of chia, using it to stimulate saliva flow and to relieve joint pain and sore skin.
Chia seeds are very rich in omega-3 fatty acids, even more so than flax seeds. And chia has another advantage over flax: chia is so rich in antioxidants that chia seeds don’t deteriorate and can be stored for long periods without becoming rancid. And, unlike flax, they do not have to be ground to make their nutrients available to the body. Here are some other chia seed nutrition facts: Chia seeds provide fiber (25 grams give you 6.9 grams of fiber) as well as calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, manganese, copper, iron, molybdenum, niacin, and zinc.
More benefits of chia seeds: when added to water and allowed to sit for 30 minutes, chia forms a gel. Researchers suggest that this reaction also takes place in the stomach, slowing the process by which digestive enzymes break down carbohydrates and convert them into sugar.
Chia seeds have a nutlike flavor. You can mix seeds in water and add lime or lemon juice and sugar to make a drink known in Mexico and Central America as “chia fresca.” As with ground flax seeds, you can sprinkle ground or whole chia seeds on cereal, in yogurt or salads, eat them as a snack, or grind them and mix them with flour when making muffins or other baked goods. I find them tasty and an interesting addition to my diet.
Chia is undergoing something of a renaissance after centuries of neglect. It was a major crop in central Mexico between 1500 and 900 B.C. and was still cultivated well into the 16th century, AD, but after the Spanish conquest, authorities banned it because of its close association with Aztec religion (Indians used the seeds as offerings in rituals). Until recently, chia was produced by only a few small growers, but commercial production has resumed in Latin America, and you can now buy chia seeds online and in health food stores.
Because of chia’s nutritional value and stability, chia is already being added to a range of foods. Research has shown that adding it to chicken feed makes for eggs rich in omega-3s. Feeding chia seeds to chickens enriches their meat with omega-3s; fed to cattle chia enriches milk with omega-3s. Chia seeds can also be added to commercially prepared infant formulas, baby foods, baked goods, nutrition bars, yogurt, and other foods. Another bonus: insects don’t like the chia plant so it is easier to find organically grown varieties. I expect we’ll soon be hearing much more about chia and its health benefits.
Andrew Weil, M.D.