Chia seeds are marketed as a superfood or power seed that will help cure whatever ails you. Now, new research suggests that the tiny seeds may help protect you from a typical fat- and sugar-rich diet. But are chia seeds really all that they’re hyped up to be? Here’s a look at the research:
Chia (“chee-ah”) seeds come from the Salvia hispanica, the same plant as—you guessed it—the Chia Pets “fur” or “hair” comes from. However, the Chia seeds you can buy at supermarkets are food grade, so you probably don’t want to eat your Chia pet.
Chia plants are a member of the mint family and originated from Mexico and South America. They’ve been used for centuries by the Aztecs and Mayans as a source of nourishment and medicine. They’re eaten whole, ground or as sprouts.
In the past few years, several brands of Chia seeds have become available at supermarkets and health food stores. Companies claim they’re a “powerful superfood” with “more antioxidants than blueberries,” “more omega 3s than salmon,” a diet aid, performance booster and much more.
So, what’s real and what’s hyperbole? Even though Chia seeds are ancient, there’s very few published research studies to support the big health and nutrition claims for the tiny seeds.
5 Things to Know about Chia Seeds
1. They’re Nutritious: Chia seeds are an excellent source of fiber and polyunsaturated fats. A tablespoon (.5 oz) has 70 calories, 6 grams fiber, 3 grams protein, 4.5 grams fat and 7 grams carbohydrates. (Taken from Go Chia! raw chia seeds from Whole Foods.) And according to the USDA nutrient database, Chia Seeds have 90 mg calcium per Tbsp, which is significantly less than the 300 mg in a glass of milk. Claims around the seeds being protein-packed and some of the highest sources of several nutrients are not substantiated.
2. They Contain ALA: The type of omega-3 fatty acid in chia seeds is alpha-linolenic acid, the same fatty acid present in walnuts. Because this plant-based omega is poorly converted to the bioactive long-chain DHA and EPA found in seafood and algae, Chia seeds are no replacement for long-chain omegas. However, since the seeds are so tiny, you don’t have to grind them up like you do flaxseeds to absorb the beneficial ALA omega-3. One study of post-menopausal women found that when subjects added about an ounce of chia seeds to their diet, blood levels of ALA increased 138% and levels of EPA (but not DHA) dis too.
3. They May Have Health Benefits: Research completed in animal models and some human studies show that Chia seeds can help reduce markers of inflammation and blood sugar and lipids to help reduce risk for cardiovascular disease and potentially type 2 diabetes. They can be considered a healthy addition to a diet that helps reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.
4. They Won’t Help You Magically Drop lbs. Several websites claim that Chia seeds can help you lose weight, but one study of humans found no weight loss benefits when individuals supplemented their diets with chia seeds.
5. They May Be Antioxidant Rich: Chia seeds probably do contain substantial antioxidants like most plant-based foods but no published scientific studies has quantified the antioxidants in a serving of chia seeds. But considering that they’re a plant, they will have antioxidants.
How to Enjoy Them
Whole Chia seeds have a crunchy, nutty taste. They kind of “pop” in your mouth. Whole Chia seeds can be sprinkled on cereal, salads, or yogurt. Seeds can be added whole or ground and mixed into smoothies or added to baked goods. They can be sprouted and used in salads or sandwiches.
Chia seeds soaked in water (for about 30 minutes) form a gel. I personally couldn’t drink the gelatinous Chias but know many RDs that drink the Chia cocktail. (Think nutty tiny Bubble tea….it definitely wasn’t for me!)
The gel can be added to sweet or savory sauces, dips or used to make puddings. They can also be used in baked goods to help retain moisture. In fact, some studies have shown you can reduce the amount of fat called for in recipes by using Chia seed gel in place of some of the fat.