Chia seeds – superfood or hype?

cooking_with_chia_seeds_

What are chia seeds?

Chia Pet – ever heard of it or had one?  This is how chia first became famous, as a little ceramic pot (usually in the shape of an animal) that when watered, the chia would sprout green ‘fur’!  More recently however, chia seeds have come to the forefront as a great nutritious seed – with some touting it the ultimate ‘superfood’.

Salvia hispanica L. is a cultivated plant that falls under the same family as mint, which is grown predominantly for its seeds.  The seeds were traditionally cultivated as a food source for the people in Mexico and Guatemala.  The seeds come in both black and white, which have the same nutritional content and flavour.  Chia seeds have the ability to absorb 10 x  their weight in water and turn into a sort of gel.

Chia seeds benefits

Chia seeds are a great choice for people looking for gluten free options.  The do contain good levels of antioxidants, protein, vitamins, minerals, soluble fibre and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA – which is a form of omega-3).  The research however, is lacking to support the hype surrounding chia seeds as being an amazing superfood.

Detoxification

  • One of the very beneficial things about chia seeds is the levels of soluble fibre in them.  Soluble fibre gets fermented in the gut into short chain fatty acids such as butyrate, which play an important role in gut health by protecting against intestinal dysbiosis, decrease inflammation and protect the colon.
  • Chia seeds swell and can work like an intestinal broom to help cleanse, clean out and sooth the colon.

Weight loss and general health

  • The high levels of ALA and soluble fibre in chia seeds are thought to promote weight loss and reduce the risk of heart disease and potentially reduce blood glucose levels.
  • Chia seeds are naturally satiating due to their good protein and fat, making them a great snack food.
  • Researchers have shown that chia seeds can assist in the reduction of blood glucose levels and triglyceride levels.
  • A study completed in 2010 showed that in postmenopausal women, supplementation with chia seeds for a seven week period resulted in elevated ALA and EPA levels.

Be aware

Omega-3

  • Be aware of the hype!  Chia seeds are fantastic and make a great addition to a nutrient dense diet, but do not rely on them for beneficial omega-3 levels.
  • Chia seeds are rich in ALA, which needs to be converted to the long-chain essential fatty acids forms of omega-3 – eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) before it can be of real benefit to the body.   So even though something is high in omega-3, you still need to know how the body will convert it before you know if it’s of use.  ALA, EPA and DHA are ALL omega-3’s!

Plourde and Cunnane (2007) note that approximately 5% of ALA is converted to EPA and <0.5% of ALA is converted to DHA. (see image below to see the flow of conversion of ALA > EPA > DHA in red)  

Pic_for_Chemical_structure_of_Omega-3

Antinutrients

  • Dr. Loren Cordain – an American scientist who specializes in fields of nutrition and exercise physiology – notes that chia seeds contain numerous antinutrients which can reduce their nutritional value.  There are high phosphorous levels found in chia seeds which are a marker for phytate levels.  Phytates can bind with minerals such as calcium, iron and zinc which reduces their absorption by the body.

Gut Irritation

  • The gel like quality of chia seeds can actually impair the proper digestion of fat and proteins.  When this gel is combined with other anti-nutrients, it may aggravate conditions like leaky gut, so chia seeds should be avoided by people suffering with gut issues and gut inflammation.

Our verdict  

Chia seeds are a great addition to any diet but they shouldn’t replace a regular intake of oily fish and green leafy vegetables, which are fantastic sources of Omega-3 fatty acids. Enjoy in moderation and avoid if trying to heal the gut or to reduce gut inflammation.

Where to get it

Chia seeds are usually found in their whole seed form or in a ground powder which is available at most supermarkets and health food stores.  As mentioned above, they come in black and white seeds which have the same nutritional value and the same flavour.

How to use chia seeds

  • Storing chia seeds: store chia seeds in a glass or plastic storage container with a tight-fitting lid in a cool, dark place. They will keep for
  • Chia seeds can be eaten whole as a crunchy addition to salads, yoghurt, muffins or smoothies – just about anything!
  • Ground chia seed can be added to various pancake recipes or in muffins to replace some of the flour content.  Ground chia seeds can be used as a binding agent.
  • Ground chia seeds mixed with water are sometimes used as an alternative to eggs in baking. Use 1 tablespoon of finely ground chia seeds and 3 tablespoons of water per egg in a recipe for baked goods (not for omelettes or fried rice).
  • When soaking chia seeds in liquid  (usually a ratio of 2:1) the chia seeds absorb the liquid, turning them into a gel or jelly like mixture.  This makes them great for mixing with yoghurt, coconut milk or almond milk to make a chia pudding, topped with a granola and some fruit, making a wonderfully nutritious breakfast or snack.

Chia seed recipes

raspberry-coconut-chia-pudding-pops

Raspberry coconut chia seed popsicles

References

Nieman D, Gillitt N, Jin F, Henson D, Kennerly K, Shanely R, Ore B, Su M, Schwartz S, Chia Seed Supplementation and Disease Risk Factors in Overweight Women A Metabolomics Investigation, 2012, The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Vol 18 No 7, 700-708

Ali N, Yeap S, Ho W, Beh B, Tan SW, Tan SG, The Promising Future of Chia, Salvia hispanica L., 2012, Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology, Vol 2012, Article ID171956, 9 pages

Plourde M, Cunnane SC, Extremely limited synthesis of long chain polyunsaturates in adults: implications for their dietary essentiality and use as supplements, 2008, Appl Physiol Nutr Metab, Aug; 32(4): 619-34

Cordain L, The Paleo Diet, Seed Fatty Acid Composition, http://thepaleodiet.com/seed-fatty-acid-composition/

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