Chia Seeds: Tiny Seeds with a Rich History
In the Kitchen: It’s hard not to notice this once ignored member of the mint family: chia seeds are all the rage. From beverages to baked goods, these tiny black and white seeds from the Salvia hispanica plant have a long history. Grown in Mexico and South America, chia seeds are said to have been used by Mayan and Aztec cultures for supernatural powers.
Like flaxseeds, chia seeds have a mild, nutty flavor, but unlike flaxseeds, they can be eaten whole as well as ground. Chia seeds pair well with both sweet and savory foods, adding more crunch and texture than flavor. Chia seeds are an integral ingredient in the Mexican and Central American favorite drink chia fresca, in which the seeds are mixed into lime or lemon juice with added sweetener. The suspended seeds make an impressive drink presentation.
When combined with liquid, chia seeds swell and form a gel. They can be used as a substitute for eggs in baked goods, which is particularly useful for vegans or those with egg allergies. Simply mix one part chia seeds to six parts water. About one tablespoon of this gel equals one large egg. Chia’s ability to gel also makes the seeds a fine substitute for pectin in jam.
In the Clinic: Chia is one powerful little seed. A 2-tablespoon (1-ounce) serving contains 138 calories and 9 grams of fat, along with a whopping 10 grams of fiber, 5 grams of protein and 18 percent of the daily value for calcium. It’s also surprisingly packed with alpha-linolenic acid omega-3s — 4,500 milligrams per ounce, more than you’ll find in flaxseed.
Chia seeds’ claims to fame range from controlling hunger to promoting heart health and reducing blood sugar levels, but evidence supporting the seed’s “superfood” reputation doesn’t live up to all of the hype — at least not so far.
Of the four published clinical trials so far, three found positive effects for body weight loss, reduced blood glucose and triglyceride levels, and elevated ALA levels. But the fourth study found no significant effect on weight loss or disease risk, despite increased ALA levels. More research is needed to determine whether chia can deliver on these claims.
Although rare, people who are sensitive to mustard, sesame seeds, oregano or thyme may also react to chia. Those taking blood thinners or other heart medications should speak with their doctors before eating chia seeds.
In Quantity: Chia seeds are popping up on menus and on grocery store shelves. Their popularity can be harnessed by foodservice operations — especially those looking to attract health-conscious customers.
Sprinkle ground or whole chia seeds onto cereal, salad, pudding and yogurt. Use chia gel to bind veggie patties or as a thickener in soups. Mix ground chia into flour to boost nutrients in baked goods like muffins, cookies and cakes. Chia can add fluffiness to gluten-free menu items like waffles and pancakes, too. Use hydrated chia seeds as an egg substitute in vegan and egg-free baked goods. Offer chia fresca as a beverage option on menus.
In quantity, chia often is sold in 10-pound bags, although smaller quantities are available. Store chia seeds in a cool, dry place. Thanks to their antioxidant qualities, chia seeds don’t go rancid as quickly as flaxseeds do; chia can be stored for at least several months. Ground chia seeds should be placed in a container with a tight-fitting lid, and may also keep a month or more. Chia gel keeps for about two weeks in the fridge.
Lemon Chia Pudding
Developed by Alex Caspero, MA, RD
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons maple sugar*
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 large lemon, zest and juice
1 cup nondairy milk, such as coconut or almond milk
1⁄4 cup chia seeds
- Blend together the olive oil, maple sugar, maple syrup, lemon zest and juice, and almond milk. Add chia seeds, whisk together and let sit for 15 minutes until gelled.
*Regular granulated sugar may be substituted for maple sugar.
Blueberry Chia Jam
Developed by Kathryn Scarlata, RDN
1 1⁄4 cup frozen wild blueberries
1 1⁄2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
1 tablespoon chia seeds
1⁄2 teaspoon vanilla extract*
- In small saucepan over medium heat, add blueberries and maple syrup. Stir and cook the blueberry mixture for 10 minutes. Use a potato masher to mash blueberries.
- Next, add 1 tablespoon of chia seeds and continue to cook and stir for about 2 to 3 minutes or until blueberry mixture resembles a jam consistency. Remove from heat and blend in vanilla extract. Refrigerate and use within a week.
*Fresh, minced ginger or lemon juice also work well as flavoring agents in this jam.