Three Cheers for Chia
Once best known as a novelty item, this tiny seed is a protein powerhouse.
The 1970s is mostly remembered as the decade of fads: pet rocks, mood rings, white polyester. One of the biggest hits was the Chia Pet, an earthenware creature that came with a packet of seeds. You would soak the seeds until they formed a gel, then apply the gel to the moistened pottery. As the chia sprouted it would form a plush blanket of green, creating a living sculpture that paired well with your lava lamp.
It’s amazing how things can change over the years. Chia, once a fad item, is now praised for providing significant nutrition in a compact package. But it turns out that this new-found respect for chia isn’t so new after all.
An Ancient Food Rediscovered
Evidence suggests that chia (Salvia hispanica) was first used for food around 3500 BC. Along with corn, beans and another seed crop called amaranth, chia became a dietary mainstay for the Aztecs, Mayans and other pre-Columbian peoples, who also incorporated chia seeds into their medicines and cosmetics. That chia was offered to the Aztecs’ emperors as tribute from conquered tribes and to their gods in religious ceremonies reflects the esteem in which this seed was held in the Mesoamerican world.
Much of Aztec civilization was destroyed during the Spanish conquest of what is now South and Central America. As a revered food of the gods, chia was suppressed and replaced by such European crops as barley and wheat. It survived as a minor crop in Guatemala, Mexico and Nicaragua, where it was made into a beverage with water, lemon juice and sugar.
Protein and More
One reason chia was so valued by the ancient Americas’ native peoples was its ability to fuel activity for long periods of time; they called chia “the running food.” Many of today’s fitness enthusiasts, looking at chia’s nutritional profile, have come to the same conclusion.
Protein, the basic building material of muscle and other tissues, is made up of units known as amino acids. Unlike many other plant-based foods, chia seed provides a complete, readily absorbable set of essential amino acids, those that the body can’t produce on its own. And chia—at between 19% and 23% protein by weight—contains more of this major nutrient than most seeds and grains.
Chia supplies more than just protein. It is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, containing more of these essential fats than flax seed, the best-known plant source. Chia also contains significant micronutrient stores, including B vitamins, boron, calcium, iron, potassium and vitamin C.
Athletes aren’t the only ones interested in chia. One of chia’s most notable properties is the thick gel it forms when mixed with water. Known scientifically as a hydrophilic colloid, this soluble fiber regulates electrolyte balance, helps keep the body hydrated and allows the intestinal tract to function properly. In addition, chia gel provides a sense of fullness and helps slow the conversion of dietary carbohydrates into glucose, or blood sugar. This helps prevent the blood-sugar rollercoaster created by consumption of simple sugars, which can play havoc with not only glucose control for people with diabetes but also with appetite control for anyone trying to watch their weight.
Chia’s healthful effects are beginning to show themselves in the research lab. In a study of people with type 2 diabetes, chia lowered blood pressure; hs-CRP, an inflammation marker; and hemoglobin A1C, a blood-sugar marker (Diabetes Care 11/07).
In rats, chia was able to reduce resistance to insulin the hormone, that controls glucose (British Journal of Nutrition 1/09).
Chia seeds can be used in baked goods and salads, or they can be eaten in sprout form. Ground chia powder is becoming a popular ingredient in healthy shake mixes.
From food to fad to food again, chia has come full circle. It may not be, as it was for the Aztecs, the subject of religious devotion. But scientific understanding of chia’s nutritional benefits has made it the latest dietary superstar.