Saint Louis University

BLOG: Chia Seeds, More Than Just a Funny Plant?

Author: Heather Pratt
Published: Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Chia seeds come from a plant native to South and Central America, Salvia hispanica. The name chia comes from the Aztec word chian, which means oily. The seeds were once used by Aztec warriors as medicine, treating joint pain and skin conditions. They also used it as a food for themselves and their animals and as a part of their religious ceremonies. There is evidence that the use of chia seeds dates as far back at 3500 B.C.

Saint Louis University Dietetic Interns offer tips for the chia seeds

The seeds were virtually lost for about 500 years but were rediscovered in the 1990’s by Dr. Wayne Coates, a researcher at University of Arizona. Dr. Coates is also known as Mr. Chia. He was working in Argentina, looking for alternative crops for farmers when he and his team came across the chia seed. After testing and researching the seed they discovered the nutritional benefits.

The Salvia hispanica plant is a member of the mint family and can grow to be more than 10 feet tall. It is grown primarily for its seeds but also produces white or purple flowers. The color of the seed varies from brown, black, gray, white or any combination of these colors. The highest quality seeds are the black or white seeds. A brown color indicates the seeds are immature and have lower nutrient content. Also, if the seeds are harvested before they are mature they will have lower total and omega-3 content. The seeds grow well in dry climates. The ratio of the nutrient composition of the seed changes depending on where it is grown, climate conditions and the nutrients of the soil it is grown in.

Saint Louis University Dietetic Interns offer tips for the chia seeds

What is it about this seed that had made it so wildly popular? These little seeds pack a lot of punch to be so small. They are high in dietary fiber, protein, minerals and antioxidants. They are the highest known plant source of omega 3, an essential fatty acid that our body requires. Since it is not from an animal source it is a good way to obtain this fatty acid without also taking in cholesterol. Although it is from a plant, it is gluten free, so chia seeds are safe for people with Celiac’s disease. According to the USDA’s website, 1 ounce of chia seeds contain 138 kilocalories, 9.8 grams of fiber, 179 milligrams of calcium, 5 grams of omega 3 and almost 5 grams of protein. Since they are so high in fiber if you decide to start using chia seeds, start gradually. The high fiber could cause some intestinal discomfort if you aren’t used to it. This would be the case with any form of fiber and isn’t specific to chia seeds.

Chia seeds come in two forms, whole or milled. Unlike flaxseed, it does not have to be ground to be able to absorb its nutrients. Chia and flax seed have similar nutritional profiles but chia seeds have a longer shelf life and don’t turn rancid like flax seed can. Whole chia seeds can be added directly to salads, cereals or anything you would like. If they are placed in water they will form a gel which also can be mixed into foods like smoothies, oatmeal and yogurt. If a gel is made and not used all at once it should be refrigerated and will stay good for one to two weeks. Since it thickens foods it can make you feel full quicker. It has a very bland taste and doesn’t influence the taste of other foods. Chia gel can be used to replace eggs or butter in baking recipes. One tablespoon of gel replaces one egg. You can also replace half the butter in a baking recipe with an equal portion of gel.

How to make chia gel:
2 tablespoons chia seeds
1 cup liquid
Whisk them together in a bowl. Allow to sit for 10 minutes then whisk again. It is ready for use now. Refrigerate any leftover gel.

Finally, how much of chia seeds should you eat? The Food and Drug Administration classifies chia seeds as a food, not a supplement, so there really aren’t a limit or recommendation on how much to eat. After reviewing online blogs and chat information the general consensus is one to two tablespoons per day. The seeds are recognized as safe but further research does need to be done to confirm the claims of their ability to lower cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure and promote weight loss. The research studies that have been done are mostly on animals or humans with a small number of participants.

Ali, N., Swee Keong, Y., Wan Yong, H., Boon Kee, B., Sheau Wei, T., & Soon Guan, T. (2012). The Promising Future of Chia, Salvia hispanica S. Journal of Biomedicine & Biotechnology, 2012, 1-9. doi: 10.1155/2012/171956.

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