It entered the scene three decades ago as a comical tchotchke also known as the Chia Pet. But like the best of American makeover stories, it has turned itself into something much better — a nutritional powerhouse.
We’re talking about the chia seed. Teeny to the naked eye, the chia seed contains antioxidants, protein, fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, making it one of the most super of superfoods.
“Chia is great. It’s easy to use and it’s beneficial for a wide range of people — those with food allergies, people who want to lose weight, vegetarians and athletes," said Rebecca Mohning, a Washington-area registered dietitian and owner of Expert Nutrition.
It’s easy to use because — unlike flaxseed, which has some of the same properties — it doesn’t need to be ground to access the key nutrients. Instead, the whole seed (slightly bigger than a poppy seed) can be sprinkled on top of pretty much anything.
“And its flavor is hard not to like, since it’s essentially flavorless," said Mohning, who not only recommends the seed to her client groups but also uses it at home with her 4-year-old son, who has egg and other allergies.
“I use it in baking as an egg replacer. It has great binding capacity," Mohning said. (One tablespoon of chia powder in a quarter-cup of water equals one egg). It is also gluten-free and has anti-inflammatory properties, she said.
What is chia?
So, where did this superseed come from, and what is in it, exactly?
It originated in Mexico and Guatemala, says Wayne Coates, author of “Chia: The Complete Guide to the Ultimate Superfood." It is also grown in Australia and Bolivia, in areas fairly close to the equator. But the United States does not have the right type of climate conditions to grow the superseed — at least not yet, he says. “Maybe through breeding in the future, but not at the moment," he said.
And the nutritional content?
One tablespoon of whole chia seeds contains 60 calories, 4 grams of fiber, 2 grams of protein and 2.4 grams of omega-3. It also has 64 milligrams of calcium and 40 milligrams of magnesium. In other words, two or three tablespoons of chia equal one large egg in terms of protein, and one tablespoon of chia has the same amount of omega-3 you would get in four ounces of salmon.
But not all omega-3s are created equally, says Mohning, because the human body can better absorb omega-3 from fish than those that are plant-based.
How much should we eat?
Here is where it gets tricky. “It’s not exactly clear what the needs are for omega-3s," said Cheryl Harris, registered dietitian in Fairfax, Va., and owner of Harris Whole Health. “So there is no max amount known, but because of the high fiber content, a couple of tablespoons would be filling."
The filling aspect of chia is one that works for people who are trying to lose weight, Harris says. Also, in addition to the high fiber content, the high protein levels keep you full longer — another plus for weight loss.
“There is volume, but you are cutting calories and you stay full between meals," Mohning said.
But at two tablespoons we wouldn’t get enough, say, protein or fiber for the day, right?
“That’s right, but I don’t see chia as an ‘instead of’ food but rather an addition to all the other healthy things you eat," said Harris, who gives frequent talks about food and mood, a topic in which chia plays a role, too.
“In terms of food and mood, chia is pretty awesome," Harris said. It’s the omega-3s that help in this respect.
In 2006, several research papers in the American Journal of Psychiatry established a link between low levels of omega-3 fatty acids and various forms of depression; they also established a link between consuming more omega-3s and decreasing rates of various forms of depression.
Coates says he wishes that chia were better understood and used for its effect on mood and brain development.
“The military could use it — soldiers could carry it with them — school cafeterias could use it, pregnant women. We know that it’s key for brain development, and it’s safe," said Coates, who has studied the little seed for the past two decades.
Chia in your pantry
Chia is “essentially a complete food," said Coates, whose website, www.drcoateschia.com, is devoted to educating people about, and selling, chia. “I eat it every day." He sprinkles it on salads and cereals. It can also be used in pancake mixes and in smoothies, he says.
“It’s also easy to keep and store. The shelf life is about five years, and it doesn’t go rancid like flaxseed," said Coates, who also is known as “Mr. Chia."
It doesn’t go rancid, he says, because it contains such high levels of antioxidants that help stabilize it.
At this point you might start wondering, why haven’t I heard of this wonder seed before?
It’s because, Coates says, it’s not a commodity on the world markets, like flax or other agricultural products.
But if health-food giant Whole Foods’ chia sales numbers are any indication, the word is getting out. The chain just announced that sales of chia surpassed those of flax for the first time.
In all this hype, Coates sees it as his mission to educate — for example, how to distinguish good from bad chia:
Essentially, there are two varieties of chia — one is a creamy white and the other is black/gray. Both kinds are fine. What is not good, however, he says, is brown chia. The brown color indicates that the seed is not ripe yet. This means the nutrients are subpar.
You also want to make sure that the seed hasn’t been mixed with something else. Look for other seeds and small sticks in the package. Another sign that the seeds have been mixed is if there is an odor; chia should be odorless and flavorless.
So, is this flavorless, nutritional powerhouse a fad?
“I don’t think chia is a passing trend," Mohning said. “We need more research on chia, but with obesity trends and everything else, it just may be part of the solution. And if not, it won’t hurt."