What if you could get a good amount of nutrition and feel satisfied all from a tiny seed?
Most of us remember that jingle (you’re probably singing it as you read this) advertising the terra-cotta planters in the shape of pets. Once you soaked the seeds and slathered the gooey mixture on the planter, it sprouted fuzzy greens in a few days.
Turns out those black seeds are full of nutrients.
“They are an amazing tiny seed and really inexpensive, and a little goes a long way,” says Andrea McNinch, 37, owner of Healing Yourself Institute and Regeneration Raw in Royal Oak, Mich.
McNinch has been using chia for at least seven years and says the seeds have “two times the potassium as bananas and three times the reported antioxidants that blueberries have.”
Chia seeds are often compared to flaxseeds because they have similar nutritional profiles. But the main difference is that chia seeds don’t need to be ground the way flaxseeds do. Chia also has a longer shelf life and does not go rancid like flax does.
From a culinary perspective, McNinch says, chia acts as “a binder, thickens and emulsifies things.”
“Adding in chia bulks up your food without the calories and fat and without diminishing the flavor,” she says. “You can add chia to anything.”
Raw and sprinkled on foods or soaked in water to create a gelatinous thickener, chia seeds are a source of protein, omega-3 fatty acids and fiber.
“In the last two years, chia has grown from being known in the health food community to being available at Costco,” says Amber Poupore, 34, owner of the Cacao Tree Cafe in Royal Oak. She uses chia in smoothies and desserts, and to make a dehydrated seed bread.
Food companies also are getting into chia. Global product launches of foods containing chia were up 78 percent in 2012, according to research firm Mintel. Dole Nutrition Plus launched a line of whole and milled chia and products containing chia.
“It’s certainly a trend that’s been real hot,” says Tedd Handelsman, owner of Better Health Store locations in Michigan.
“We’ve carried them for a couple of years, and they are gaining in popularity,” he says, adding that chia is becoming as popular as flaxseed in the functional food category.
Often cited as an authority on chia, Wayne Coates is an agricultural engineer and professor emeritus at the University of Arizona. He wrote “Chia: The Complete Guide to the Ultimate Superfood,” published last spring. The book discusses the history of chia and its health benefits, and includes plenty of recipes.
“It’s not a supplement and is a food in the FDA’s eyes,” says Coates. “Which means you can consume as much as you like.”
Coates does urge caution when choosing chia seeds.
“Chia is only black or white,” Coates says. “If there is brown – it is not good, and it can mean the seeds are immature.”
About the seeds
Chia, also known as Salvia hispanica, comes from a flowering plant native to Mexico and Central America and also grown in Australia. Here are some things you might not know:
• Chia is a member of the mint family.
• Chia seeds are mainly black, but you can buy white ones.
• Aztec and Mayan cultures “relied on it to keep their civilization healthy,” Coates writes in “Chia: The Complete Guide to the Ultimate Superfood.” In fact, the name chia means “strength” in Mayan.
• Chia seeds are sold at health food stores, Whole Foods Market and some grocery stores. Prices vary.
How to use chia
Here are some suggestions for using raw chia seeds:
• Sprinkle over yogurt, oatmeal and cereals.
• Stir into drinks and smoothies.
• Toss in mixed greens, rice, pasta or potato salads.
• Add to muffin and cookie recipes.
• Make a pudding, stirring the seeds into almond milk (or other dairy, rice or coconut milk).
• In a clean coffee grinder, grind the seeds into a coarse flour (often called milled chia) and use it in baked goods.
To make chia gel:
Soak about 2 tablespoons of seeds in 1 cup cool water. The seeds will swell, and the mixture will become gelatinous. You can thin the gel if it’s too thick.
Add the gel to water and drink as is.
Use the gelatinous mixture as an egg replacer in some recipes.