Ten things you should know about Chia
Photo credit: Deryn Macey@runningonrealfood
Chia is an annual flowering plant in the mint family native to Mexico and Guatemala. For centuries it was an important food source for the Aztecs but after invasion by the Spanish it mysteriously disappeared from farmers fields. The discovery of its remarkable nutritional profile has created a massive global upsurge in demand for the tasteless (well perhaps a little nuttiness) black seeds. With demand rising by 200 per cent per year experts have predicted it will become a $1 billion global commodity by 2020.
In the 1970s US shops launched the whacky Chia Pets terracotta animal figures with seeds inside that when watered grow to become the creatures fur. A TV advertising campaign using the catchphrase Ch-Ch-Ch-Chia! helped promote the Christmas present pets pigs, puppies, frogs and hippos which have gone on to include cartoon characters and human figures including President Barrack Obama.
It is said that if you need to choose just one food to take to a desert island it should be chia. Its rich in nutrients, and is spectacularly high in fibre. A one ounce serving of chia (thats around 28 grams or 2 tablespoons) contains a third of our daily fibre requirement. It also contains 10 per cent of our protein allowance as well as calcium (18%), iron (12%), manganese (30%), magnesium (30%) and phosphorous (27%).
Like flax seeds chia seeds are high in Omega 3 fatty acids which have been shown to lead to lower blood pressure and reducing fat build-up in the arteries. Chia seeds have, gram for gram, more Omega 3s than salmon. But the type of ALA Omega 3 found in plant sources is different from the EPA and DHA found in oily fish now part of an officially recommended diet. ALA is converted by the body into the active forms and the implications of this for consumption levels is unclear.
Chia Seeds are gluten and cholesterol free and their high protein content makes them of particular interest to vegetarians. Of special interest to vegans is the fact that they can be made into replacement eggs. Simply mix a tablespoon of ground seeds with 3 of water and allow to sit for 15 minutes. And your egg is laid! It can now be used in a recipe of your choice. Chia can be eaten whole (unlike flaxseed which needs to be chewed well or processed before releasing its health benefits).
Fibre in the diet has a range of benefits including helping to prevent heart disease, diabetes and some cancers but the high levels of fibre in chia appear to have an extra bonus. The seeds absorb up to 10-12 times their weight in water. In the stomach this forms a gel-like substance and theoretically this should increase the feeling of fullness, slowing the absorption of calories and so help with weight loss. No research has yet proved this to be the case.
Because of their neutral taste chia seeds are excellent mixers with other foods. One of the most popular ways to eat them is to blend them into a smoothie or sprinkle them on your cereal, yoghurt, salads, dressings or even ice cream. They can be added to any baking recipe including bread and cake and included as a thickener in soups and gravies. Then theres the chia drink. Just add two tablespoons of seed to a cup of warm water and stir. Allow to stand in the fridge overnight and the result will be a thick gel. Now mix with a cup of juice of your choice (serves 2).
According to Americas Harvard Medical School some preliminary research suggests that chia could help improve the health of people with diabetes. In animal studies a chia rich diet helped lower harmful LDL cholesterol and triglycerides (fats) while increasing HDL cholesterol. A white seeded variety of chia, called Salba, helped diabetes sufferers control blood sugar and blood pressure. But the effect was only slightly better than those eating wheat bran. The important factor, says the Medical School, may be that chia is a whole grain. And eating whole grains is good for everyones health.
Eating chia seeds might just make you feel good... not to mention sleep better. They contain high levels of Tryptophan the amino-acid that the body uses to help make serotonin, which is known to modulate mood, emotion, sleep and appetite. While Tryptophan is found in a wide range of foods from walnuts and sunflower seeds to cheese and brown rice the levels in chia mean that one ounce of seeds will give you 44 per cent of your recommended daily intake.
Chia was rediscovered as a food by American agricultural research professor Dr Wayne Coates while he was investigating possible new crops for Argentinian farmers. When he began analysing the nutritional qualities of Chia he realised it had the potential to become an important wholefood in the West. Now known as Mr. Chia he has spent the last 25 years promoting the health benefits of the plant and writing books including The Complete Guide To The Ultimate Superfood.