Are chia seeds really a superfood? There are a ton of claims out there about chia seeds, but which of these claims are supported by science? Here’s everything you need to know!
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Origin of Chia Seeds
Chia seeds are produced by the flowering plant Salvia hispanica, otherwise known as the chia plant. This plant is actually a member of the mint family and is native to Central and Southern Mexico and Guatemala. Use of chia seeds dates back to 3500 B.C. by the Aztecs. In fact, chia seeds were a staple in both the Aztec and Mayan’s diets because of the seeds ‘superpowers’—mainly their ability to increase energy and stamina. Chia seeds were not only used for foods, however. Pre-Columbian civilizations used chia as raw material for medicines, nutritional compounds, and frequently pressed it to extract its oil.
Interestingly enough, when the Spanish conquerors took over Mexico in the 1500s, they banned the use of chia because of its close association with religion (the Aztecs used to offer chia to the gods in religious ceremonies). As a result, most of the chia crop was wiped out and only a survived in a small area of Mexico. It wasn’t until nearly 500 years later in 1990, that a group of scientists, nutritionists, and agriculturalists rediscovered and commercialized the production of the chia plant. Now, chia seed grows abundantly in Argentina, Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, and recently Australia.
Chia seeds are small and oval in shape. They can be either black or white in color. Brown chia seeds are a sign of immaturity (unripe). Chia seeds are gluten free, vegan, and paleo-approved. Chia seeds are hydrophilic (water-loving), meaning, when added to water they can absorb up to 10 times their dry weight! Chia seeds also contain mucilage (type of soluble fiber), which creates a gel when added to liquid.
In 1-ounce (or about 2 tablespoons), chia seeds contain:
Fat: 9 grams (7grams are polyunsaturated fats)
Fiber: 10 grams (42% DV)
Protein: 4.7 grams (9% DV)
Calcium: 179 mg (18% DV)
Magnesium: 95 mg (23% DV)
Phosphorus: 244 mg (27% DV)
Manganese: 0.6 mg (30% DV)
Zinc: 1.3 mg (12% DV)
Iron: 2.19 mg (27% DV)
The protein found in chia seeds is high quality, meaning it contains 18 different amino acids and all of the essential amino acids. This is a great plant-based protein option for those who don’t eat meat or fish.
Chia seeds are a low carb food, where fiber makes up the majority of the carbohydrate count. There is a mix of both soluble and insoluble fiber found in chia seeds. There is a higher count of insoluble fiber, but chia seeds are a rich source of soluble fiber.
Chia seeds are a great source of alpha linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid. Omega-3s make up about 75% of the fat found in chia seeds. This makes chia seeds one of the best plant-based sources of omega-3s. The only issue with ALA omega 3 is that it has to be converted into an active form (EPA or DHA) before the body can use it. This process, unfortunately, is quite inefficient. A better, more complete source of omega-3s can be obtained from fish based sources (such as wild-caught salmon or sardines) or from grass-fed beef (read more here). But, in defense of chia seeds, they do contain more omega-3s gram for gram than fish; so depending on how much your body can convert to the active form, chia seeds may provide a similar benefit. Nevertheless, chia seeds would be a great source of omega-3s for vegans or vegetarians.
Chia seeds are high in so many great antioxidants, but mainly: myricetin, quercetin, kaempferol, and caffeic acid. What are these good for?
Myricetin: a potent anticarcinogen and antimutagen
Quercetin: has anti-inflammatory, anticancer, and antithrombotic properties
Kaempferol: anticancer effects and decreases risk of chronic diseases
Chia seeds are a great source of minerals. They are especially high in calcium, phosphorus, manganese, magnesium, and iron, but also are a good source for selenium and copper.
Health or Hype—What does the Science Say?
As mentioned, the superfood label has become a bit of a marketing scheme in recent years. Chia seeds have been marketed as a weight loss superfood, heart healthy superfood, and many more! The question is, can any of these claims actually be backed up? Let’s take a look at whether these claims are true or just a bunch of hype!
Weight Loss: In multiple scientific studies, consumption of chia seeds had no effect on body weight. In this particular study, overweight adults consumed 50 grams of chia seeds per day for 12 consecutive weeks. Compared to the placebo group, neither the overweight men nor women saw weight loss as a result of eating chia seeds. So, in summary, eating chia seeds alone will not cause weight loss. However, chia seeds possess many great weight loss-promoting components that, if combined with a healthy lifestyle, could aid in weight loss. For instance, chia seeds expand in the stomach and are high in protein and fiber. These qualities may help promote satiety, the feeling of being full. This could ultimately help you eat less, while still providing your body the nutrients it needs. If you are looking to lose weight, consider consuming a chia seed snack during the day to reduce appetite, consume chia seeds prior to eating a meal, or incorporate chia seeds into a meal.
Cardiovascular Health: There have only been a few studies that have evaluated this topic. A review of seven studies on the topic found that most did not demonstrate statistically significant results in relation to cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk factors. However, it has been determined that the research is insufficient regarding the relationship between chia seeds and cardiovascular health.
Some studies have shown slightly positive results. For instance, one study involving consumption of 37 grams of chia seeds per day for 12 weeks reduced participant’s systolic blood pressure between 2 and 10 mmHg. The phytochemicals quercetin and chlorogenic acid found in chia seeds may contribute to this reduction in blood pressure.
Another study showed positive results on cholesterol levels. In rats, this study found that chia seed feedings significantly decresased serum triglyceride levels and low-density lipoprotein (LDLs). On the other hand, high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and omega 3 fatty acids were increased. A study on human patients also showed reduced serum triglyceride levels, however, this study is inconclusive because chia seeds were consumed alongside nopal, soy protein, and oats. Since chia seeds are abundant in omega-3 fatty acids, it is likely that this plays a role in the reduction of serum triglyceride levels.
Energy Production: As mentioned above, the Mayans and Aztecs used chia seeds because they provided an energy boost and allowed for increased stamina. This is likely due to the high protein, fat, and fiber content and low carbohydrate count. The benefit of chia seeds being low in carbohydrates is that it helps prevent fluctuating blood sugar levels, ultimately preventing the sugar ‘crash’ when the blood sugar drops after eating sugary foods. To further research how chia seeds actually affect energy production, one study compared chia seeds to Gatorade as a means of carbohydrate loading in athletes. After running on a treadmill for 1 hour, participants then ran a 10k time trial on a track. The results showed that there were no statistical differences between the chia seed loading and the Gatorade loading groups. It was concluded that chia seed loading is a great option for athletes that allows them to perform with peak energy while reducing their dietary intake of sugar.
Brain Function: Omega-3s are crucial to brain health. As mentioned above, chia seeds are high in ALA, an omega-3 that must be converted to EPA or DHA to truly benefit us. Unfortunately, this conversion is very inefficient. A study involving chia seeds measured the actual the amounts of ALA, EPA, and DHA in the blood as a result of consumption. After consuming 25 grams of milled chia seeds per day for 10 weeks, participant’s plasma did show an increase in ALA and EPA levels. The presence of EPA does support the claim that chia seeds support brain function, however, since the conversion is minimal, the effects may also be minimal and require additional supplementation.
Bone Health: Chia seeds are a rich source of calcium (18% of the recommended daily allowance). It has been well studied that dietary sources of calcium are best for bone health (whereas calcium supplements are not recommended). Chia seeds are also high in phosphorus and manganese, which both play a role in bone formation. An interesting study found that the phytochemicals in chia seeds, quercetin and kaempferol, may also exhibit a protective effect against post-menopausal bone loss.
Gut Health: Chia seeds are high in both soluble and insoluble fiber. The balance of these fibers, along with fiber making up about 40% of a chia seed, make chia seeds an ideal source of fiber. According to many studies, fiber promotes bowel regularity, helps reduce appetite, decrease risk of colorectal cancer, and can exhibit a prebiotic effect.
Inflammation: Chia seeds have longly been regarded as anti-inflammatory. However, most studies evaluating effects of chia seeds on inflammation have been inconclusive, and most have not shown any effect on plasma levels of TNF-a, IL-6, MCP, or C-reactive protein (CRP). A reduction in serum CRP (an inflammatory marker) was found in one study on type 2 diabetics. On the other hand, in Dr. Loren Cordain’s book “The Paleo Answer,” he describes a study completed by Dr. Nieman that showed a 12-week consumption of 50 grams of chia seeds per day actually increased an inflammatory marker called IL-6 in both men and women. This study has yet to be backed up elsewhere in literature, but it may be an important finding to deter you from chronically consuming high amounts of chia seeds.
Along with all the great things chia seeds contain, they also contain phytic acid. Phytic acid is considered an “anti-nutrient” and is found in most grains, seeds, legumes, and nuts. This “anti-nutrient” has the ability to prevent the absorption of many of the nutrients contained in chia seeds. For this reason, it is recommended to soak, sprout, or ferment your chia seeds prior to using them to help break down the phytic acid.
If you choose not to soak your seeds prior to use, be sure to drink plenty of water. As mentioned above, chia seeds absorb liquid and will use liquid from your body and tissues if another source is not readily available. Also, be careful consuming large quantities of dry seeds at one time. One man swallowed a tablespoon of dry chia seeds and then drank water, ultimately causing the chia seeds to lodge in his esophagus (yikes). Use safe eating practices, folks!
If consumed in reasonable quantities, side effects of chia seeds are few. Because they are high in fiber, consumption in large quantities may cause some GI upset, bloating, and/or gas. Some also suggest staying away from chia seeds if you have an allergy to sesame or mustard seeds.
What to Look For:
Always look for raw, organic chia seeds. If it is not organic, the chia seeds may be irridated, which can destroy the nutrients inside. Chia seeds typically come in whole form, but can also be found in ground/powder form.
Whole: best used in recipes that contain already contain liquid
Soaked: whole chia seeds that are pre-soaked can be added to any recipe (makes them easier to chew, digest, and helps reduce phytic acid)
Ground: you can choose to grind them up yourself or buy it in a powder. This is the best form to add as a recipe thickener because it won’t alter the texture
How to Store Chia Seeds
- Store in a cool, dry place. Recommended storage is in a glass jar with a tight lid.
- Chia seeds have a shelf life of 2 to 4 years.
- In the refrigerator, chia seeds can last beyond 4 years.
- Ground Chia seeds have a much shorter shelf life. It is best to buy them whole and grind as needed to preserve the nutrients.
How to Use
Chia seeds are super versatile because they don’t have a strong taste! So, you can throw them in just about anything. Here are some of my favorite uses:
- Chia Seed Pudding
I love pudding! When I realized that my childhood favorite pudding wasn’t exactly healthy (at all), I was desperate for another option. Low and behold, I was introduced to chia seed pudding! It’s so simple to make and there are a thousand wonderful recipes out there! The recipe usually includes some type of milk, chia seeds, a natural sweetener (honey, dates, maple syrup, etc.), and then any recipe-specific ingredients. It’s best to let this set for at least 4+ hours to achieve a true pudding consistency.
- Use in smoothies
You can use either whole or ground chia seeds for this, depending on the texture you want to achieve. The gelatinous substance chia seeds form when added to liquid helps to naturally thicken up your smoothies. This is huge for me because I’m not a huge fan of bananas—which are used in a billion smoothie recipes to help keep it thick. I highly recommend soaking the chia seeds in water (1:1) to create the gel before adding to your smoothie!
- Egg Substitute
Many have heard of the flax egg, but the chia egg exists too! Simply grind up the chia seeds into a powder and mix 1 tbsp with 3 tbsp water and let sit until it has an egg-like consistency (usually 5 to 10 minutes). This substitute can be used in baked goods for a vegan or allergen-free option!
Chia seeds can be used as a base in so many baked goods (without having to be used as an egg replacement). Check out bread, cookie, pastry, or other baked good chia seed recipes!
- Sprinkled On Top
You can sprinkle chia seeds on top of your yogurt, salad, oatmeal, etc. to give it a little crunch and a nutrient boost!
- Chia drinks
You can buy pre-made chia drinks (like this one) at the grocery store or you can make your own!
So, Are Chia Seeds a Superfood?
Chia seeds pack a large nutrient punch into a tiny package. While chia seeds are loaded with fiber, protein, antioxidants, and omega-3s, the research is still pretty limited regarding the major health benefits of chia seeds.
Consider using chia seeds as a substitute, a thickener, etc. but the jury is still out on its benefits as a supplement. I would recommend regularly consuming chia seeds (1-3 times a week) as an extra boost to your diet, but there is definitely no need to over consume them.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.