A one-time novelty toy turned into a health food trend when dietitians realized the benefits of chia seeds (beyond sprouting grass-like into fuzzy pets, of course). High in omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, protein, and other nutrients, chia seeds appear on many lists of so-called "superfoods."
Chia seeds are harvested from the flowering plant Salvia hispanica, a member of the mint family that grows wild in Central America, where the seeds were a major food source for centuries. It's easy to slip the versatile seeds into your modern diet.
What Are Chia Seeds?
Chia seeds are nutrient-dense kernels with a slightly nutty flavor; you can eat the easily digested seeds whole or ground, dry or soaked in liquid. "Chia" translates from the Mayan language as strength, and athletes worldwide eat them to enhance their energy and endurance.
How to Use Chia Seeds
The easiest way to add chia seeds to your diet is to sprinkle them straight onto cereal, yogurt, salads, or other dishes, adding a nice crunch and a slightly nutty flavor. You can also stir them into a smoothie or a glass of fruit juice. With just a little more effort, you can make chai pudding, adding liquid and a sweetener, and some fruit, nuts, or chocolate chips for flavor.
Stirred into water, chia seeds become gel-like, similar in texture to tapioca pearls with the same thickening ability. Chia seeds can be used this way as an egg substitute in vegan baking recipes. Chia frescas, made by combining chia seeds, water, lemon or lime juice, and sugar, are a popular drink in Mexico.
You can sprout chia seeds and use them as you would any microgreens, in salads, on sandwiches, or to garnish tacos, omelettes, and other dishes.
What Do They Taste Like?
The mild nuttiness of chia seeds makes them quite versatile for both sweet and savory applications. Dry chia seeds add crunch but the texture changes dramatically as the seeds swell and become gel-like when you add them to liquid.
Chia Seed Recipes
The texture of hydrated chia seeds makes them especially appealing as a pudding, which can easily be customized with your favorite yogurt or milk and additions ranging from fruit to nuts to any variety of baking chips.
Where to Buy Chia Seeds
Health food stores and most grocery stores sell chia seeds. You can also order them from online grocery retailers. Look for a mix of the black and white ones; brown chia seeds are not yet fully mature and won't contain the same high level of nutrients. They may also have a bitter flavor.
Because of their crunchy texture and nutty flavor, chia seeds are a common addition in commercially produced granola bars and cereals. They're also frequently included in pancake and waffle mixes for extra fiber and nutrients.
Whole chia seeds can last for years stored in a cool, dry location. Ground chia seeds also have a long shelf-life, but it's best to keep the flour in a glass container in the refrigerator or freezer. Soaked chia seeds stay good in the refrigerator for about a week, while sprouted chia seeds should be eaten within a few days.
Nutrition and Benefits
A 1-ounce serving of chia seeds (approximately two tablespoons) provides 140 calories, 4 grams of protein, 11 grams of dietary fiber, and 7 grams of polyunsaturated fat in the form of omega-3 fatty acids, which can help lower bad cholesterol levels and decrease inflammation. Chia seeds are particularly high in calcium, with a 1-ounce serving providing approximately 18 percent of the recommended daily value. Chia seeds are considered a complete protein because they contain all nine of the essential amino acids you must obtain from food sources. In addition, chia seeds are a good source of minerals such as magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, and manganese.
Chia Seeds vs. Flaxseeds
Chia seeds contain slightly lower levels of omega-3s than flaxseeds, but unlike flaxseeds, chia seeds do not need to be ground or milled in order to deliver their nutrition. Flaxseeds go rancid much more quickly and easily than chia seeds, and must be kept in the refrigerator protected from heat, light, and air. Chia seeds generally cost more than flaxseeds.
Because chia seeds are so high in fiber, it is recommended that daily intake be limited to 1 to 2 ounces. Higher doses may cause digestive upset. Chia seeds can interact with certain medications, including heart medications, high blood pressure medications, and even aspirin. Always consult your doctor before adding chia seeds to your diet.
Those with severe food allergies should try chia seeds with caution, especially those with allergies to other nuts or seeds.