Chia seeds

The latest superfood

January 11, 2012

Remember the Chia Pet? The kitschy little animal-shaped clay planter that, with minimal care, sprouted a green mop in a matter of days?

That 1980s home-gardening fad hasn’t quite faded; you can now purchase a bust of Obama that will grow a verdant ‘do. But chia seeds have spilled from the kitchen windowsill onto our dining plates. They’re the latest superfood health fad, turning up in everything from bread to granola to bottled beverages.

Part of the mint family, chia (Salvia hispanica) is native to central and southern Mexico and Guatemala. Though it’s an annual herb that still grows in its native region (as well as areas of the U.S.), the plant is more widely known commercially for its seeds.

chia seeds
Chia seeds (with a clementine for scale) are multicolored.

Smooth, tiny, and oval in shape, chia seeds are flecked with gray, white, black, and brown. They can be purchased in bulk in select stores, in packages, or online. Best of all, due to their natural antioxidants, they keep for months.

Like flax seeds and salmon, chia seeds are rich in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. But unlike flax seeds, chia seeds need not be ground to make their omega benefits available to the body. According to health guru Dr. Andrew Weil, chia seeds also provide fiber, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, manganese, copper, iron, molybdenum, niacin, and zinc. Some believe that chia seeds can help you lose weight or fend off heart disease, but so far, no scientific study has produced evidence to back up these claims.

Endurance junkies are already familiar with the seeds, extolled in Christopher McDougall’s popular 2009 book Born to Run. The ancient Aztecs, McDougall writes, chomped the seeds as they went into battle, and the Hopis used it to fuel epic runs from Arizona to the Pacific Ocean.

chia seeds in pudding and yogurt
Chia seeds can be added to puddings and scattered over yogurt.

McDougall’s account of the Tarahumara tribe in northern Mexico includes a passage that makes chia seeds look like native PowerBars. After drinking a mixture of chia seeds dissolved in water with a little sugar and a squirt of lime — as taught to him by the tribe — McDougall reports that it “went down like fruit punch with a nice limey tang . . . within minutes, I felt fantastic.”

When mixed with water, chia seeds turn gelatinous, making them ideal for achieving thicker consistencies in smoothies and vegan puddings. (The January issue of Martha Stewart Living features a vanilla chia pudding, describing it as similar to tapioca in texture.) Their nutty but subtle flavor is a tasty addition to oatmeal and granola, bread dough and muffin batter; they add crunch to salads and yogurt. There’s also the traditional South American beverage known as chia fresca, in which the seeds are mixed with water, lime or lemon juice, and sugar.

If you’ve been a fan of flax seeds but frustrated by their weaknesses — the oily taste, the tendency to spoil quickly, the need to be ground into flour or pressed into oil — then try chia seeds instead. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Related recipe: Chia Seed Pudding

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