This tiny superfood packs a punch, and unlike some health foods, can easily be incorporated into your everyday diet.
You probably know chia seeds as those small granules adding a crunch to your go-to peach smoothie, outfitting your honey lemon muffins with black specks, and increasing the chance that your granola bar will create an embarrassing pile of crumbs. Though it seems like they’ve made their way into just about every food, it’s for good reason: chia seeds are a versatile nutritional powerhouse. Read on to learn exactly what makes these small seeds so mighty.
The Qualities and History of Chia Seeds
Native to southern Mexico and northern Guatemala, these flat, oval-shaped seeds are the edible fruits of the Salvia hispanica L. species and are also a part of the mint family. They’re grown in white and black varieties, though there is little difference in their nutritional values, and despite being just one millimeter in diameter, they can hold about 10 times their dry weight in liquid.
Over the course of five centuries, the use of chia seeds has shifted dramatically. In pre-Columbian times, the shiny seeds were a key food, oil source, and medicine for Mesoamericans, who ate the roasted ground seeds in a gruel and drank water or fruit juice that had been infused with the seeds. In the 1990s, research on chia seeds’ nutritional value and the breeding and farming techniques used to cultivate them was published, leading to greater awareness about the food and its health benefits. By 2010, the seeds had skyrocketed in popularity because they were seen as a safer and more sustainable source of polyunsaturated fatty acids than salmon or flax, and they could be shipped and traced more easily. Today, chia seeds are grown in 14 countries and make up one of the fastest growing commodity markets globally, projected to reach $2.1 billion by 2022.
The Seeds’ Health Benefits
Don’t be fooled by their size — these seeds are a highly-concentrated nutritional bullet. According to the USDA, two tablespoons of chia seeds contain less than 140 calories, but they boast almost five grams of complete protein, which means they contain all nine essential amino acids that can’t be made by the body. For the lactose intolerant, the granules can ease some of the difficulty in consuming enough calcium: one serving contains 18 percent of the recommended daily amount of the mineral.
The seeds are also a hearty source of fiber, offering nearly 11 grams in one serving. Since they’re primarily comprised of soluble fiber, the seeds expand and form a gel when they come in contact with water. Once digested, this gel adds bulk to stool, helping to keep bowel movements regular, prevent constipation, and make you feel fuller. The soluble fiber may also help lower LDL cholesterol and slow digestion, which can prevent blood sugar spikes after eating a meal.
What gave chia seeds the title of “superfood,” however, is that they’re a rich plant source of omega-3s. While omega-3s have been shown to improve cardiovascular health by lowering cholesterol levels, regulating blood pressure, and decreasing inflammation, controlled human research studies on the health benefits of chia seeds specifically haven’t yet shown these effects.
How to Eat Chia Seeds
To grind or not to grind? That’s the question that ultimately arises when deciding how to eat chia seeds. Thankfully, you don’t need to grind the seeds into a powder to be able to digest them and garner their nutritional benefits. Since the surface of chia seeds easily breaks with moisture, they can be absorbed in their whole form, unlike flaxseeds.
Chia seeds are used as a functional ingredient — or a food that either contains or adds a component with a positive health effect or eliminates a component with a negative one in a dish — so they’re often added to not-so-healthy items, like baked pastries and snacks, to boost their nutritional value. And since they have a mild nutty flavor and soften into a gel when met with liquid, they can go undetected in most dishes, making them highly versatile. Use the seeds as a thickener with a crunch in smoothies and wet dishes like oatmeal or pudding, mix them into a pancake or muffin batter for a fibrous, filling breakfast, or combine one tablespoon of the seeds with a cup of mashed fruit to make a sugar-free jam. For vegans, a mixture of one tablespoon of chia seeds and three tablespoons of water makes for a quick egg replacement.
Purchasing the Seeds and How to Store Them
Thanks to their trendy status, chia seeds are readily available and can be found online, in local health food stores, and even at big-box stores like Target. Look for chia seeds that are white, black, or grey in color, as a brown hue means the seeds are immature and may not contain the most nutrients. After purchasing a bag, store the seeds for two to four years in a cool, dry spot, no refrigeration required.