Chia seeds are harvested from the Salvia hispanica plant, a type of sage in the mint family. The seeds are high in omega-3 fatty acids and have versatile uses in the kitchen. They were a staple of the ancient Aztec diet, and are grown commercially throughout Latin and South America. Cooks and health food aficionados around the world praise the seeds for their high concentration of vitamins and minerals, and many recommend eating them regularly for weight loss and diet-related purposes.
Popularity Both Ancient and Modern
Indigenous people in Latin and South America have grown and harvested the chia plant for centuries. According to popular lore, the seed is what gave many heroes their strength and bravery. Warriors and athletes from long ago are believed to have carried small packets of the seeds with them on their conquests, and many are said to have lived on its nutrients alone for weeks at a time.
While modern people rarely take such a minimalist approach, the seeds remain popular as a form of nutrition and energy. They are touted by many in the health food community as a “superfood” on account of the many vitamins and minerals they contain, as well as their perceived health benefits. The seeds can be eaten raw or mixed with other liquids or foods, and will usually take on the flavor of whatever surrounds them.
Chia seeds are very high in protein, calcium, and iron — three elements all humans need for optimal body and brain functions. Omega-3 fatty acids, potassium, and high concentrations of disease-fighting antioxidants round out the nutritive profile. Chia seeds contain almost no calories, and are completely fat-free. They are also high in fiber, which often helps people feel full and sated; that they also readily absorb water and expand in the stomach only amplifies this effect.
Health experts often teach that the seeds help the body retain fluids and electrolytes by forming a dense gel in the stomach that can slow the conversion of carbohydrates to sugar. The seeds are also believed to help build muscle and other tissue, which makes them useful to athletes and others concerned with fitness and strength training.
Ways to Eat and Prepare
One of the simplest ways to enjoy chia seeds is to eat them raw, either on their own or mixed in with cereal, salads, or pasta dishes. They have a slight crunch to them, but are easy to chew and carry a slightly nutty flavor. Some cooks will roast or toast the seeds to make their taste more pronounced. When ground into flour, the seeds can be used to augment a number of different baked goods.
Soaking the seeds in water or other liquids will cause them to expand to nearly 10 times their original size. Chia fresca, a popular dish throughout Latin America, is made by briefly immersing the seeds in juice — often lemon or lime — then sweetening with sugar or agave syrup. A dish known as “chia jelly” is made in a similar fashion, often by soaking the seeds overnight in juice or water. When left to soak for hours on end, the seeds will ultimately break down, leaving a jelly-like substance that can be eaten on its own or used to augment smoothies, hot cereals, and bread batters, among other things.
When left in a cool, moist environment, chia seeds will eventually sprout. These sprouts are also edible, and are popular additions to salads, sandwiches, and as a garnish to a number of noodle and soup dishes. The sprouts may be familiar to some as the green “fur” of the so-called “Chia Pet,” a collectible animal-shaped clay planter popular throughout much of North America.
Weight Loss and Diet Uses
A number of diet companies promote chia seeds as something of a weight loss “miracle,” often with promises that it is the key to a svelte, trim figure. Most of these claims have to do more with the seed’s water retention properties than any inherent ability to cause the body to shed weight. People who regularly eat chia seeds, or who blend the seeds in with their regular foods, often feel full faster — and often eat less as a result. In most cases, it is reduced calories overall that leads to weight loss. Seeds can help, but are rarely a cause in and of themselves.
Risks and Concerns
Consuming chia seeds and sprouts is usually considered safe, though consumers are typically advised to take claims of healing or significant nutritional benefit with a bit of skepticism. While eating the seeds with some regularity has been shown to help promote overall health, there is little evidence that the seeds alone can cure or treat any sort of medical condition. Relying on a perceived “healing power” without first seeking a qualified medical opinion can be dangerous.