The Little Seed That Could

There’s a lot more to chia than a catchy jingle.

Pity the poor beleaguered chia seed. After centuries as a revered Aztec and Mayan source of nourishment, the chia seed was first banned by the conquering Spanish conquistadors and then unceremoniously downgraded to a sloppy paste slathered over terracotta puppies. Oh, how things have changed since the Chia pet craze.

The diminutive seeds of the Salvia hispanica plant, a member of the mint family native to Mexico, are experiencing a 21st-century renaissance as a bona fide powerfood as word spreads that as far as good-for-you foods go, chia couldn’t be a more standout citizen. An endorsement by Dr. Oz has only spurred interest.

Chia has soaring levels of dietary fiber. A mere tablespoon contains about 5 grams of disease fighting dietary fiber. In fact, nearly all the carbohydrate present in chia  is in the form of fiber. A high intake of fiber—about 30 grams per day for men and 25 grams for women—may reduce the risk of mortality from cardiovascular disease by up to 60%, according to 2011 findings in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Unfortunately, the average American consumes only about one-half of the recommended amount.

The high viscosity of chia’s soluble fiber slows digestion in the stomach, decreasing blood sugar levels and promoting satiety, which helps reduce diabetes risk and stymies overeating, respectively.

In the book Born to Run, author Christopher McDougall reports that the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico, who are known for their incredible running endurance, often consume a chia drink before long runs to help quell hunger.

Another reason to shout “Ch-ch-ch-chia!” is the stellar amount of the heart-healthy essential omega-3 fat alphalinoleic acid—about the same amount found in flaxseed—but you don’t need to grind it into a powder for proper absorption as you do with flax. A diet enriched with chia has been shown to improve the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats in the blood. The U.S. populace consumes much higher amounts of omega-6 fats than omega-3s, which raises the risk of heart-hampering inflammation. Omega-6 fatty acids are abundant in cheap vegetables oils that are omnipresent in fast-food  kitchens and packaged foods.

The overachieving chia seed also provides a vegetarian source of protein, a plethora of antioxidants, and the bone-building trio of calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium. Though often underconsumed, magnesium has been shown to confer protection against type 2 diabetes, possibly by improving insulin sensitivity. It now seems obvious why the Mayan word for strength is chia.

Chia plants produce both black and white seeds, each considered to be equally nutritious.

Almost tasteless, chia seeds can be mixed into a wide range of dishes without altering the flavor.

Here’s how to load up on the salubrious seed:

  • Mix a tablespoon into yogurt for a nutritious snack.l Replace 1⁄3 cup of flour in a pancake or baked good recipe with chia powder.
  • Make chia fresca by stirring together 1 cup of water, 2 teaspoons of chia seeds, the juice of half a lemon or lime, and 2 teaspoons of honey or agave syrup.
  • Sprinkle onto vegetable or fruit salads.
  • Blend into your favorite smoothies.
  • Mix together 1 tablespoon of chia seeds and 3 tablespoons of water. Allow the mixture to sit for 15 minutes and use as an egg substitute when baking cakes, muffins, and cookies.
  • Make chia pudding by blending the seeds, cocoa powder, and maple syrup with milk or a nondairy alternative such as coconut milk. Let sit to thicken.
  • Mix the seeds into beef when making meatballs, burgers, or meatloaf.
  • Incorporate chia into oatmeal or homemade granola.
  • Add to stews and soups as a thickener.