If you grew up in the 1970s or ‘80s, you no doubt remember the rise of the chia pet—the kitschy terracotta “gift that grows” that took over the airwaves during the holiday season. If you were lucky (or unlucky) enough to receive this fad gift, you were supposed to smear tiny oval seeds on your “pet” ram, alligator, or hippopotamus and then wait with bated breath for their green “hair” to grow. What many of us didn’t realize at the time was that the “chia” in the chia pet was actually chia seeds—a nutritionally dense seed that’s now considered by many to be a superfood. In fact, the company that produced the original chia pet not only still sells the terracotta pets (and cartoon characters and ex-presidents) but has also gotten into the nutritional supplement industry, specializing in—you guessed it—chia seeds.
But what exactly are chia seeds, and are they as good for you as they’re made out to be? Let’s find out!
What Are Chia Seeds?
The majority of chia seeds on the market come from the plant Salvia hispanica—a flowering species in the mint family that’s native to central and southern Mexico and Guatemala. While chia seeds may seem like a relative newcomer to the market, they’ve actually been cultivated as a food source for over 5,000 years and were a staple for many Mesoamerican cultures, including the Aztecs and Mayans.
In fact, chia seeds were so important to these cultures that they were not only used as food but were also pressed for their oil (the word chia actually means oily in Aztec and strength in Mayan), traded as currency, and even used as offerings to the gods during religious ceremonies. However, the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century put an end to the dominance of the chia seed because its relationship with religion made it threatening—so the seeds were banned and crops burned.
Thankfully, the chia plant managed to survive in isolated pockets throughout Mexico, and the world is now again reaping the rewards of these ancient and revered seeds.
Health Benefits of Chia Seeds
Chia seeds may be tiny, but they pack quite a punch. In fact, just 2 tablespoons of chia seeds contains:
- 10 grams of fiber
- 5 grams of protein
- 9 grams of fat (7 grams of polyunsaturated fat)
- 15% of the RDA of thiamine
- 17% of the RDA of niacin
- 18% of the RDA of calcium
- 17% of the RDA of iron
- 27% of the RDA of magnesium
- 35% of the RDA of phosphorus
- 37% of the RDA of manganese
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are some of the most extensively studied nutrients. And these essential fatty acids, which make up over 70% of the polyunsaturated fats (specifically alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA, the other 30% belonging to omega-6 fatty acids) in chia seeds, are almost a one-stop shop when it comes to important health benefits.
For example, they help us absorb important fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin D, they help the body produce hormones, and they support the growth and maintenance of cells. And in contrast to unhealthy fats, like trans fats, omega-3 fatty acids act as both antioxidants and anti-inflammatories, assisting in the process of detoxification and protecting us from dangerous inflammation that can lead to elevated blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels and conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and heart disease.
Like omega-3 fatty acids, the dietary fiber in chia seeds is important to a healthy lifestyle. Not only is high fiber intake associated with a decreased risk of certain cancers, especially colon cancer, but the dietary fiber supplied by 2 tablespoons of chia seeds also makes up almost half of our daily requirements. Chia seeds are so rich in fiber, in fact, that they may even promote weight loss, as they help you feel fuller longer.
Chia seeds are an important source of antioxidants, including the potent flavonoids quercetin and kaempferol. Like omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants help protect the body from free radicals that can cause oxidative stress, which may lead to harmful levels of inflammation.
Quercetin is also known for its ability to block histamine—a chemical involved in both inflammation and allergic responses. And kaempferol has been found to inhibit the activity of enzymes that weaken connective tissues in joints and blood vessels and contribute to delayed healing.
What’s more, diets rich in antioxidants may even reduce several important risk factors for heart disease, including hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, and diabetes, as blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels are all negatively influenced by oxidative stress.
For their small size, chia seeds contain significant amounts of protein. This is important, as protein is the most abundant substance in the body after water and is required to carry out just about every biological process. Adding just an ounce of chia seeds to your morning smoothie can help you get the protein you need each day to keep your body healthy, strong, and running at peak efficiency.
Can You Choke on Chia Seeds?
While chia seeds have more than their fair share of health benefits, there has been at least one case of a man developing an esophageal obstruction after swallowing a tablespoon of chia seeds and then drinking a glass of water.
Chia seeds are known to absorb up to 27 times their own weight in water, so if you don’t eat them properly, it’s possible that you could end up with a giant gelatinous lump of seeds in your throat.
But anyone can choke on anything. So instead of swearing off chia seeds forever, just allow them to soak for several minutes before eating them or simply avoid tossing them back like a handful of dietary supplements.
Varieties of Chia Seeds
Chia seeds are available in a variety of forms, from black and white chia seeds to chia oil and chia powder.
Black and White Chia Seeds
The chia plant naturally produces both black and white seeds, and sometimes varying shades of both, and they all have basically the same nutritional value. However, many people have a preference for one color or another, so producers generally separate the colors when processing and sell the seeds individually.
Whichever color you prefer, it’s important to keep an eye out for tan or brown chia seeds, as seeds with a brown coloration are immature and haven’t yet developed the same nutritional value as their mature counterparts.
Once you’ve chosen the color chia seed you prefer, it’s also important to note that their high antioxidant content means that dry chia seeds can be stored in a sealed container in a cool, dark place for months without losing their nutritional value—and they’ll last even longer if refrigerated.
Ground Chia Seeds
Chia seeds are also available as a powder. Unlike flaxseeds, which are actually more nutritious when ground, chia seeds retain the same nutritional value whether they’re eaten whole or in powder form. So the choice of whole chia seeds or ground really depends on personal taste, though many people prefer to use ground chia seeds in recipes that call for thickening or binding agents.
Chia Seed Oil
Like whole chia seeds, the oil that’s extracted from the ripe seeds is rich in omega-3 fatty acids. What’s more, chia seed oil can be used for both cooking (especially sautés and salad dressings) and as part of your skin care regimen.
In fact, studies have found that the potent antioxidants in chia seed oil can help prevent dry skin and irritation and even fight acne. So if you’re looking for a versatile way to add antioxidants to your food and your skin care regimen, chia seed oil may be just the ticket.
Chia seeds are just about everywhere you look now, from your corner grocery store to online health food stores, so they can be easily incorporated into your daily routine. And with their mild, nutty flavor, you can add them to just about anything, too, from your morning yogurt or smoothie to your favorite baked goods.
With their mild, nutty flavor, chia seeds can be easily incorporated into any healthy lifestyle. They can be added to a morning smoothie or sprinkled on yogurt to create a healthy snack and can be consumed whole or ground without compromising nutrition. And chia seed oil is the perfect complement to sautés and salad dressings and may even reduce irritation, dryness, and blemishes when applied directly to the skin. Superior nutrition, subtle taste, and versatility make chia seeds a true superfood.