March 22, 2010

Chia Seeds

Chia seeds have been in the news lately as a nutritious additive to foods. Although they've been part of indigenous Central American diets for millennia, popularity in the US skyrocketed with the 2009 publication of the book Born to Run. Author Christopher McDougall writes about the Tarahumara people of Mexico who are known for their extreme running talents and a diet heavy on the chia seed. From there to shout outs on the Huffington Post and - and even the American Dietetic Association getting on board - 2009-2010 has been good business for chia seed people.

Chia seeds are small seeds used originally in the diets of Mayan and Aztec populations. They're touted as a great source of alpha linolenic acid, a healthy omega-3 fatty acid. Chia seeds are also hailed for their high fiber content: the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter (March 2010) says that 1 ounce (3 tablespoons) of chia seeds has 11 grams of fiber. The fiber in chia seeds is almost entirely soluble, meaning that it forms a thick viscous gel when mixed with water. Soluble fiber is the type of fiber that has been shown to have cholesterol lowering properties.

The health claims of chia seeds range from the outlandish to the very plausible. The American Dietetic Association says that chia seeds can help:
  • Lower triglycerides
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Lower cholesterol
We know that a diet high in fiber can help with weight control by promoting satiety - or the feeling of fullness. However, in a 2009 study of 76 people published in Nutrition Research, scientists determined that chia seed does not promote weight loss or alter disease risk factors in overweight adults. So while they might be an interesting addition to traditional foods, there's no guarantee that chia seeds are a miracle additive.

You can use chia seeds by sprinkling on cereal or in yogurt, adding to breads and muffins or with water for high fiber drinks. You've probably even heard of chia seeds indirectly, as the sprouts of chia seed are the same ones used in Chia Pets.