Ch-Ch-Ch-Chia! Gag Gift or Miracle Food?

When you hear the word chia you may think of those laughable terra-cotta figurines that sprout green “hair” when watered.  The original Chia Pet was introduced in 1982 by Joseph Enterprises  — the same company that markets the infomercial classic “clap on, clap off”  Clapper.  The latest Chia is a controversial head of obama_chiaPresident Obama, which was pulled from Walgreen’s after the company found the item “objectionable.” 

Now chia seeds have been appointed the latest super food —  something I find a bit objectionable.

Sure, chia seeds are OK.  There’s nothing wrong with them, but they are not deserving of the “miracle” status and the excessive hype that’s been hard to escape on the Internet lately.

Chia seeds come from the desert plant Salvia hispanica, a member of the mint family that grows abundantly in Mexico.  These nutty seeds were highly prized by the Aztecs in pre-Columbian times and are still widely used in Mexico and South America — often ground to create a meal called pinole for porridge or cakes, or soaked in water or juice to make a drink known as chia fresca.

One of chia’s biggest claims to fame is the omega-3 content, which is indeed higher than what you’ll find in flaxseed.  But it’s important to remember that both chia and flax contain omega-3 ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), which your body needs to convert to the more powerful DHA and EPA forms of omega-3 that are found in fish oils and algae extract. The amount that’s actually converted is quite low, and it’s not clear if ALA protects the heart and the brain like the omega-3 in fish.

Chia seeds are relatively high in a type of soluble fiber that’s quite viscous.  In fact, mix the seeds with water and it will form a gel.  That means the seeds are slowly digested, which may be beneficial to help manage blood sugar and control appetite.  But this doesn’t translate into a “miracle food for diabetics” or a “dieter’s dream.”

buy-chia-seeds3Go ahead and enjoy chia seeds if you like them, but don’t let them distract you from eating more fish — or focusing on eating a variety of  fruits, vegetables and whole grains.  It’s the overall combination of foods that really counts.  Chia seeds, like flaxseeds and other seeds (as well as nuts), can be a beneficial part of a healthy diet, but they’re not going to transform it.   The amounts people typically eat are quite small — not sufficient quantities to deliver the levels of nutrients touted in the online ads.

If you want to try chia seeds, some people like to sprinkle these black or white seeds on cereal, yogurt or salads and bake into breads, meat loaves or casseroles.  Many recipes with chia, including those found in the Miracle of Chia, involve soaking the chia seeds in water to form a gel.  But Wayne Coates, a retired professor at the University of Arizona and co-author of Chia: Rediscovering a Forgotten Crop of the Aztecs, says that’s not necessary.  He said it’s a myth that you need to soak the seeds to bring out the soluble fiber.  You also don’t need to grind chia seeds like flaxseeds.  Chia seeds do not have the same hard seed coat so you can skip this step.

Whatever you do, just don’t eat the sprouting “hair” from a Chia Pet.  These sprouted seeds have not been approved for consumption — only amusement.  My vote for the best ancient Aztec food is quinoa.

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