Chia Seeds

A very old seed with very big health potential. 

Just as important as corn or beans to Mesoamerican cultures, yet it somehow disappeared for centuries. I for one am grateful for the re-discovery of the delicious and nutritious chia seed. 

Over 5500 years old and a staple part of the diets of Mayan and Aztec cultures, chia seeds (Salvia hispanica L.) have experienced a revival over the last 40 or so years. Originating from mid to South American regions, including Mexico and Guatemala, chia seeds are now grown and enjoyed all around the world. Historians believe chia was used as commonly as maize throughout Mesoamerican cultures. Chia was prized and the seeds were offered as a tribute by the local people to the rulers of several Aztec provincial states. Chia is an annual herbaceous plant, and the seeds are known to be highly nutritious with many health benefits.

Nutritional Facts

Chia seeds are naturally gluten free, high in dietary fibre, low GI, high in polyphenols, essential fatty acids, amino acids, vitamins and minerals. Here’s a snapshot of the some of the composition of chia seeds:

Polyphenols

Gallic acid

Caffeic acid

Quercetin

Kaempferol

Epicatechin

Genistin

Vitamins & Minerals 

Magnesium, calcium, potassium, vitamin E, vitamin B1, B2, B3

Chia seeds also have 16 essential and non-essential amino acids. 

Essential Fatty Acids

Chia seeds have a combination of various saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. 

Notably, chia seeds are very high in alpha-linolenic acid, omega 3 and 6. 

Wooden spoon filled with chia seeds

Why we should have more omega 3 and 6

The benefits of omega 3 fatty acids on our health are countless. Generally speaking, omega 3 fats have the following qualities:

  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Cardioprotective
  • Neuroprotective
  • Improves cholesterol ratios
  • Antidiabetic
  • Anticancer
  • Improves immune function

Omega 6 fats have these qualities:

  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Anti-hypertensive
  • Anti-thrombotic
  • Anticancer
  • Tissue and muscle recovery 

Fun fact: Chia seeds have more omega 3 than flax seeds (about 59% vs. 42% respectively). In fact, chia seeds surpass the total healthy fat content of flax, wheat germ, sunflower and pumpkin seeds.

Chia seed pudding in a glass jar on a wooden box with berries

What does modern research have to say about chia seeds?

Several studies suggest that chia seeds may benefit metabolic conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, as well as supporting brain and nervous system function. Below is a closer look at the research. 

Antidiabetic Properties of Chia Seeds

A 2021 randomised trial assessed the impacts of consuming chia seeds and metabolic health outcomes. A group of 42 adults with type 2 diabetes were randomised into two groups. The test group consumed 40g/day of chia seeds for 12 weeks. The chia seed group had significantly lower systolic blood pressure at the end of the study, proving a useful addition to diabetic patients in supporting heart health.

Another study compared flax and chia seeds and their effects on glycemic control and satiety. In this randomised control, both chia and flax reduced blood glucose within a 2 hour postprandial period. Importantly, chia seeds improved satiety, which meant participants were less likely to continue eating due to feeling full. This may be due to the fibre and fat content of chia above and beyond what flax provides, according to the researchers. Another relevant feature of chia is that it converts glucose into a ‘slow-release carbohydrate and affects satiety greater than flax’. 

From the journal Nutrition, Metabolism, and Cardiovascular Diseases, another study showed that chia seeds successfully managed diabetes symptoms and appetite. Two groups of overweight and obese diabetic participants (77 in total) were divided and randomised to consume either 30g chia seeds or 36g oat bran per day. Both groups complied with a 6-month calorie restricted diet with the above supplemented foods. At 6-months, participants who consumed chia seeds lost more weight and had reduced waist circumference compared to the control (oat bran) supplemented group. Inflammatory markers such as c-reactive protein were reduced in the chia group compared to control. The study also demonstrated improved body composition, glycemic control and improved leptin function, which is involved in satiety. Chia seeds are a beneficial inclusion for weight management and diabetes control. 

Wooden chopping boards with chia seeds spread all over them

Neuroprotective Effects of Chia Seeds

Microglial cells are immune cells found in the brain. They have an important role in protecting the brain against inflammation and damage from toxins. Chia seeds appear to have a modulatory effect on microglial cells, improving their function. A 2020 in vitro study demonstrated that peptide fractions from chia seeds had a neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory effect on HMC3 microglial cells. The results showed a vast reduction in reactive oxygen species production, and mitigation of TNF-alpha, thereby protecting brain cells. These results echo previous studies that support chia seeds as being systemically anti-inflammatory and are considered a healthy functional food. 

Chia Seed Allergy 

One study has identified the potential for chia seed cross-reactivity with sesame or hazelnuts. This means those who already have an existing hazelnut or sesame seed allergy may also be sensitive to chia seeds. 

Cross-reactivity occurs when the immune system identifies the proteins in chia seeds as similar to the other allergens. Both IgG and IgE immune responses were identified in lab results of this study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. The authors concluded that due to the presence of IgG binding proteins and structural similarities in vitro between chia and sesame seeds, patients with pre-existing allergies should be aware of this cross-reactivity potential. 

How to use chia seeds

There’s a few easy ways to enjoy chia seeds as part of a healthy diet. Here’s some of my favourites:

  • Sprinkle them with nuts on greek yoghurt
  • Soak them overnight in almond milk
  • Crush them in a blender to make a gluten free bread crumb alternative
  • Use as an egg replacer - mix them with a tablespoon of water
  • Ideal as a first food for your baby

Two glass jars of chia seed pudding with berries

A small word of caution

If you’re going to eat chia seeds, you need to drink water. 

In natural medicine we know chia seeds have the ability to give your bowels a ‘sweep’. Meaning they are one of few foods that contain both soluble and insoluble fibre, benefiting you, your digestive system and your microbiome. They help a solid stool to form in the intestine and because of their gel-like quality, are gentle enough for babies and the elderly. They are usually well tolerated in those with sensitive tummies as well. 

However, because they absorb a lot of water, it’s possible you may experience constipation if you have too much in one sitting. 

Case in point: my young daughter LOVES chia pudding. Left to her devices while Mum was distracted one day, she devoured the equivalent of 1 cup of soaked chia seeds. In most cases, this is too much for an adult to consume in one go. You really only need around ¼ cup per serve. This was a decent dose of fibre for her, so you can imagine what happened the day she enjoyed her favourite snack - chia, blueberries and yoghurt. Luckily I knew what had happened and encouraged her to have some more water and within a day, the problem was resolved!

Recipe

Basic Chia Pudding

I’ve been using this recipe for years and nowadays I can make it freehand. Because chia seeds have virtually no flavour, they are so versatile and you can enjoy them how you want. Feel free to vary the texture for a more solid or softer consistency, depending on what you like. 

Ingredients

2 cups milk

½ cup chia seeds

½ tsp vanilla extract

½ tsp cinnamon

A dash of maple syrup

Method

Using a fork, mix all ingredients well in a glass jar or container until you see the seeds begin to swell and separate. Place in the fridge for 4 hours or overnight, stir once more if required. 

Variations

Chocolate – add ¼ cup cacao powder and stir well

Mixed berry – add a few chopped strawberries, blueberries or raspberries to serve

Chai – add a pinch of cinnamon, cardamom and ground cloves for a lovely chai flavour

Matcha - add ½ tsp. Matcha powder and mix well

Banana – add some chopped banana and pecans

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Article References

Albunni, B. A., Wessels, H., Paschke-Kratzin, A., & Fischer, M. (2019). Antibody Cross-Reactivity between Proteins of Chia Seed ( Salvia hispanica L.) and Other Food Allergens. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry, 67(26), 7475–7484. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.jafc.9b00875

Alwosais, E., Al-Ozairi, E., Zafar, T. A., & Alkandari, S. (2021). Chia seed (Salvia hispanica L.) supplementation to the diet of adults with type 2 diabetes improved systolic blood pressure: A randomized controlled trial. Nutrition and health, 27(2), 181–189. https://doi.org/10.1177/0260106020981819

da Silva, C. S., Monteiro, C., da Silva, G., Sarni, R., Souza, F., Feder, D., Messias, M., Carvalho, P. O., Alberici, R. M., Cunha, I., Eberlin, M. N., Rosa, P., & Fonseca, F. (2020). Assessing the Metabolic Impact of Ground Chia Seed in Overweight and Obese Prepubescent Children: Results of a Double-Blind Randomized Clinical Trial. Journal of medicinal food, 23(3), 224–232. https://doi.org/10.1089/jmf.2019.0055

Knez Hrnčič, M., Ivanovski, M., Cör, D., & Knez, Ž. (2019). Chia Seeds (Salvia hispanica L.): An Overview-Phytochemical Profile, Isolation Methods, and Application. Molecules (Basel, Switzerland), 25(1), 11. https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules25010011

Marcinek, K., & Krejpcio, Z. (2017). Chia seeds (Salvia hispanica): health promoting properties and therapeutic applications – a review. Roczniki Panstwowego Zakladu Higieny, 68(2), 123–129.

Martínez Leo, E. E., & Segura Campos, M. R. (2020). Neuroprotective effect from Salvia hispanica peptide fractions on pro-inflammatory modulation of HMC3 microglial cells. Journal of food biochemistry, 44(6), e13207. https://doi.org/10.1111/jfbc.13207

Vuksan, V., Choleva, L., Jovanovski, E., Jenkins, A. L., Au-Yeung, F., Dias, A. G., Ho, H. V., Zurbau, A., & Duvnjak, L. (2017). Comparison of flax (Linum usitatissimum) and Salba-chia (Salvia hispanica L.) seeds on postprandial glycemia and satiety in healthy individuals: a randomized, controlled, crossover study. European journal of clinical nutrition, 71(2), 234–238. https://doi.org/10.1038/ejcn.2016.148

Vuksan, V., Jenkins, A. L., Brissette, C., Choleva, L., Jovanovski, E., Gibbs, A. L., Bazinet, R. P., Au-Yeung, F., Zurbau, A., Ho, H. V., Duvnjak, L., Sievenpiper, J. L., Josse, R. G., & Hanna, A. (2017). Salba-chia (Salvia hispanica L.) in the treatment of overweight and obese patients with type 2 diabetes: A double-blind randomized controlled trial. Nutrition, metabolism, and cardiovascular diseases : NMCD, 27(2), 138–146. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.numecd.2016.11.124
Wikipedia Contributors. (2021, July 29). Chia Seeds. Retrieved from Wikipedia website: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chia_seed#Nutrient_content_and_food_uses viewed 29 July 2021