It entered the scene three decades ago as a comical tchotchke also known as the Chia Pet. But like the best of American makeover stories it has turned itself into something much better – a nutritional powerhouse.
We're talking about the chia seed. Teeny to the naked eye, the chia seed contains antioxidants, protein, fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, making it one of the most super of superfoods.
"Chia is great. It's easy to use and it's beneficial for a wide range of people – those with food allergies, people who want to lose weight, vegetarians and athletes," says Rebecca Mohning, a Washington-area registered dietitian and owner of Expert Nutrition.
It's easy to use because – unlike flaxseed, which has some of the same properties – it doesn't need to be ground to access the key nutrients. Instead, the whole seed (slightly bigger than a poppy seed) can be sprinkled on top of pretty much anything.
"And its flavor is hard not to like, since it's essentially flavorless," says Mohning, who not only recommends the seed to her client groups but also uses it at home with her 4-year-old son, who has egg and other allergies.
"I use it in baking as an egg replacer. It has great binding capacity," Mohning says. (One tablespoon of chia powder in a quarter-cup of water equals one egg). It is also gluten-free and has anti-inflammatory properties, she says.
So, where did this super seed come from, and what is in it, exactly?
It originated in Mexico and Guatemala, says Wayne Coates, author of "Chia: The Complete Guide to the Ultimate Superfood." It is also grown in Australia and Bolivia, in areas fairly close to the equator. But the United States does not have the right type of climate conditions to grow the super seed – at least not yet, he says. "Maybe through breeding in the future, but not at the moment," he says.
And the nutritional content?
One tablespoon of whole chia seeds contains 60 calories, 4 grams of fiber, 2 grams of protein and 2.4 grams of omega-3. It also has 64 milligrams of calcium and 40 milligrams of magnesium. In other words, two or three tablespoons of chia equal one large egg in terms of protein, and one tablespoon of chia has the same amount of omega-3 you would get in four ounces of salmon.
But not all omega-3s are created equally, says Mohning, because the human body can better absorb omega-3 from fish than those that are plant-based.
How much should we eat?
Here is where it gets tricky. "It's not exactly clear what the needs are for omega-3s," says Cheryl Harris, registered dietitian in Fairfax, Va., and owner of Harris Whole Health. "So there is no max amount known, but because of the high fiber content, a couple of tablespoons would be filling."
The filling aspect of chia is one that works for people who are trying to lose weight, Harris says. Also, in addition to the high fiber content, the high protein levels keep you full longer – another plus for weight loss.
In all this hype, Coates sees it as his mission to educate – for example, how to distinguish good from bad chia.
Essentially, there are two varieties of chia – one is a creamy white and the other is black/gray. Both kinds are fine. What is not good, however, he says, is brown chia. The brown color indicates that the seed is not ripe yet. This means the nutrients are subpar.You also want to make sure that the seed hasn't been mixed with something else. Look for other seeds and small sticks in the package. Another sign that the seeds have been mixed is if there is an odor; chia should be odorless and flavorless.