From 1970s kitsch to contemporary superfood, chia seeds are back and enjoyed by many healthy eaters seeking to vary their sources of fiber, improve their cholesterol levels, and even balance their blood sugar. Learn why these ancient little wonder grains aren’t just for chia pets anymore!
Chia seeds are the edible seeds from a flowering desert plant related to mint, salvia hispanica, which grows in Mexico and was regularly used in Mayan and Aztec cultures. In Mayan, the word “chia” means strength, which is appropriate because these little powerhouses are full of nutrients that have been depended on by warriors for added energy.
Modern day warriors appreciate chia plant seeds for their rich amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, carbohydrates, protein, fiber, antioxidants, and calcium, to name just a few of chia seeds’ benefits.
Because chia seeds taste so mild with only a slightly nutty flavor, they can be added to almost anything, sweet or savory, without any issue. Some people even like to crunch them all by themselves.
How it’s grown
Like many mint plants, salvia hispanica is hearty. It’s grown in Latin America and also Australia, and the seeds are harvested when the plants have finished blooming and the seed pods have swelled.
Types of chia seeds
Dictated by the color of the flower, there are two main types of chia seeds, black and white. The black seeds give bloom to the darker purple flowering variety of the plant, which contains more anthocyanins than the lighter version. Anthocyanins are the darker pigment in plants and vegetables like ruby chard, beets, and blackberries.
Because it’s a good idea to “eat the rainbow” on a daily basis, anthocyanins in the black chia seeds can help you do just that. Basically, though, there’s no significant difference in the nutritional value between the two colors.
Do you have to grind chia seeds?
Unlike flaxseeds that must be ground or at the very least chopped to attain the maximum nutritional benefits flax has to offer, chia seeds can be eaten raw whole or ground.
How to buy and store chia seeds
Today, chia seeds can be found easily in specialty grocery stores, health food stores, and even online. Store them in a container with a tight-fitting lid in a cool, dry place. Compared to flaxseeds, they have a long shelf life due to their high antioxidant profile and can last for months or even up to two years without refrigeration. Ground chia seeds are best stored in a glass container in the refrigerator.
How to cook with it
For anyone seeking ways to increase their daily amount of plant-based food, adding chia seeds to recipes opens the door to multiple delicious opportunities. Ground into flour or left whole, eaten raw or cooked, it’s a mandatory pantry item for anyone who is curious about the benefits of chia seeds and willing to get creative in the kitchen.
For use in baking: When finely ground, chia flour with its high fiber content may be substituted to create gluten-free pancakes, bread, cookies, and more. It’s a great alternative to processed grains.
Thickener: Chia seeds can absorb up to 10 times their own weight in water, so they can be added to soups and dressings to naturally thicken them. And for anyone who is a creative canner, chia’s ability to gel also makes the seeds a fine substitute for pectin in jam.
As an egg substitute: For vegans and individuals with egg allergies, a “chia egg” can be a wonderful stand-in for eggs in your favorite baked good. When combined with liquid, the outer layer of the seed swells and forms a gel. This makes chia seeds especially suited to replacing eggs in recipes for baked goods.
- Sweet treats: Make frozen chia popsicles with puréed fruit, chia seeds, and nut milk, poured into popsicle molds.
- Chia seed pudding: This chia pudding recipe makes a very nice breakfast or dessert. Combine 6 tablespoons of chia seeds with 2 cups of nut milk, a teaspoon of vanilla, and 1 tablespoon of honey. Allow to sit 1-2 hours in the refrigerator (or overnight), then divide into two servings and enjoy with fresh fruit or some cacao nibs.
- Nut butter: Your morning whole grain toast just got a little crunchier, with whole chia seeds sprinkled over a smear of your favorite nut butter.
- Smoothies: A couple of tablespoons can be added to shakes and smoothies to up your daily vitamins naturally.
- Beverages: Soak some chia seeds in lemon or lime juice and add some sparkle to your summer iced tea.
Nutritional profile of chia seeds
Eating two tablespoons (about one ounce, at about 28 grams per ounce) of chia seeds a day will provide:
- about 11 grams of fiber
- 4.2 grams of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids
- roughly 139 calories, 4 grams of protein, 12 grams of carbohydrates — almost all of which is fiber — and 9 grams of fat
- a rich source of manganese, phosphorus, and calcium, which helps regulate blood pressure
Health benefits of chia seeds
Are high in polyunsaturated fatty acids such as alpha-linolenic acid. ALA can reduce inflammation, support brain function, reduce high cholesterol, and prevent heart disease.
Are high in fiber. Because of their high fiber content, chia seeds can assist with improving digestion, regulating blood sugar, and providing valuable pre-biotics for overall gut health.
Are rich in antioxidants that help protect the body from free radicals, aging, and cancer. This high antioxidant level also helps them have a stable shelf life.
Can give you the feeling of being full. Because they absorb water, they can keep you hydrated longer. Plus they are an excellent source of zinc, which helps the body produce leptin, a hormone that regulates appetite.
According to a study of type 2 diabetics at the University of Toronto, people who consumed chia seeds (37 grams of chia seeds daily) for 12 weeks experienced decreases in blood pressure, inflammation, and blood sugar that were significant enough to lower their risk for heart disease. Of course, avoid chia seeds if you have a sensitivity to mint or oregano, and consult your doctor if you are taking any medications that come with dietary restrictions.
Among their many health benefits, chia seeds support weight loss only when included as part of a healthy diet and exercise regimen with other whole foods, fruits, and vegetables. While no definitive studies have proven that eating chia seeds helps you lose weight, they can play a positive role in a healthy lifestyle with few if any risk factors.
How to make a chia egg
Chia Egg Recipe
- 1 tablespoon chia seeds
- 3 tablespoons water, (45ml)
- Combine chia seeds with water in a small bowl.
- Allow the mixture to sit for 5 minutes before using. The consistency should be thick and viscous.
- Use immediately in the recipe. The chia seeds get thicker over time and may be more difficult to combine with other ingredients.
- Recipe makes 1 chia egg.
- The chia egg recipe replaces 1 large egg.
- Chia eggs are a good binder and thickening agent. However, it does not have the same foaming, aerating, and stiffening properties as eggs.
- A good vegan egg replacement in cookies, muffins, pancakes, or other quick bread, or great to make puddings without cornstarch.