Do you remember the “Chia Pet”? Extremely popular in the 1980s, it was a cute little pottery animal that you spread a seed paste on, which then sprouted within a couple of weeks. Well, it turns out that the basis for this novelty item may actually pack a powerful health punch.
Chia (Salvia hispanica L.) is an herb that shares the same genus as sage and comes from the same plant family as mint. It grows to one meter in height and produces a spiky, purple or white cluster of flowers at the top of its stem. The plant hails from Mexico, where the ancient Aztec and Mayan cultures used the seed as a food source. Today, chia is grown in various parts of Latin America, and it is starting to regain renown as a nutritious food.
If we’re talking nutrition, it’s the chia seed that holds the most value. It’s considered especially rich in those omega-3 fatty acids you’ve been hearing so much about lately (even more so than the well-known flaxseed). Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids that are essential to your body’s healthy function.
However, omega-3s cannot be produced by your body, but must be taken from food sources instead. This type of fatty acid is believed to protect against heart disease, lower triglycerides, prevent blood from clotting, and decrease blood pressure. Note that studies to prove these effects conclusively are currently ongoing.
Fatty fish, such as salmon, are one of the best sources of omega-3s, but the dangers of heavy-metal poisoning and other toxins have made plant sources, such as flax and perilla — and now chia — safer options.
Chia seeds also contain a powerful dose of antioxidants, plus a good amount of fiber, calcium, iron, manganese, magnesium, molybdenum, niacin, phosphorous, and zinc. Moreover, the seeds can absorb more than nine times their weight in water, forming a gel-like substance. It’s been theorized that this action could keep the body hydrated for longer periods of time, slow down digestion, and balance blood-sugar levels. That’s quite the list for a little seed!
Chia seeds can be incorporated into the diet in many ways. Traditionally, the seeds have been ground up to make breads, cakes, and porridge. You can add seeds to your breakfast routine by tossing a bunch in with your cereal or yogurt, or by making a “chia fresca,” a drink consisting of water and/or fruit juice and chia seeds.
You can also use chia seeds or sprouts in your sandwiches and salads (although the sprouts don’t have the same purported health effects). Try toasting the seeds and mixing them with a bowl of nuts for a healthy snack. Many food companies are jumping on the chia bandwagon — adding the seed to products such as baby food and nutrition bars, and mixing it in with chicken/cattle feed.
You might have to do a little searching to find chia. Check your local health food stores and take advantage of suppliers on the Internet. Unfortunately, it’s not a widely grown crop as of yet, despite its nutritional value.