Nutrition Myths

SUMMARY

  • Chia is a plant grown mainly for its seeds, although the plant fiber has been used for medicinal, artistic and religious purposes
  • Chia seeds originate from Mexico and Guatemala
  • Chia seeds are a great nutrient dense energy source with high fiber, omega-3 and protein contents
  • Chia seeds can absorb up to 27 times the water of its weight
  • The best chia seeds products contain 100% dried, organic seeds made by large well-known brands
  • Store chia seeds in a tightly sealed container in a dry, dark and cool place
  • Chia seeds are relatively safe for consumption, although some warnings are worth considering
  • Chia seeds can be consumed as whole seeds, or they can be milled, ground, and used as oil extract
  • Their properties enable this versatile food to be used in the food industry for a variety of purposes
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What is chia? All you need to know

What is chia and what are chia seeds?

Chia (Salvia Hispanica) is an annual herb that blooms during the summer season and belongs to the mint family (Lamiaceae).

The edible part of the chia plant are the seeds. They are often referred to as a superfood, due to  their high concentration of nutrients and many health benefits.

Although some people report using chia leaves in salads without any adverse side-effects, there is no official information on whether the leaves or any other part of the plant are edible, or if they contain toxins harmful to humans over the short or long term.

Seeds have an oval shape of between 1 and 2mm and are colored in a spotted pattern of brown, black, white and grey colors.

As dried seeds, their moisture content is about 7%.

They are sometimes called “pseudo grain as” as they are used as grain but don’t belong to grass family.

Chia seeds soak water like a sponge and can absorb up to 27 times its weight.

Its soaking capacity depends on the temperature, level of salt concentration and acidity of the liquid. When soaked, they form a thick gel due to their high mucilage contents.

Since chia seeds absorb water so readily, they are prone to mold formation, yeast and salmonella, if not handled properly when harvesting or sprouting. (1)

MAIN POINTS

  • Chia is a plant mainly cultivated for its nutrient rich seeds, referred to as pseudo grain.
  • Their high water absorption property gives them some unique properties that are applicable in food processing.

Where do chia seeds come from?

Chia is native to Mexico and Guatemala, where it has been used for over 5000 years. 

Chia seeds became Aztecs’ staple food and were considered as important as corn, beans and amaranth in the highlands of western Mexico and Guatemala. (2)

Chia was also used in religious ceremonies, as an offering to Gods, medicine and art.

Their production was prohibited during the Spanish colonization to eliminate competition to foods introduced by Spain.

This led chia seeds to almost extinction, and considerable knowledge related to their medicinal and culinary use was lost.

Fortunately, they survived to this day thanks to various Mexican populations that continued clandestine production.

Chia seeds became part of the modern diet recently, with a definite turn in the 1990s, thanks to the discovery of their high contents of omega 3 fatty acids and other nutrients, such as fiber and protein. (3)

They gained extra popularity in recent years, due to their high levels of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA). (4)

Chia seeds are cultivated commercially in Mexico, Bolivia, Argentina, Peru, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, USA, Nicaragua, Colombia, Paraguay, Thailand, Ghana and Australia. (3)

MAIN POINTS

  • Chia seeds are native to Mexico and the Guatemalan highlands and were used for more than 5000 years
  • Chia seeds were mainly used for food but also medicine, art and religious ceremonies
  • They have increased in popularity in recent decades, due to their high nutritious value, especially omega 3 fatty acids

Calories in chia seeds

Although rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids, there are not as many calories in chia seeds compared to other similar foods, such as nuts and seeds.

One oz. (28g or 2 tablespoons) of chia seed supplies your body with approximately 100 calories, although official sources, such as the USDA, calculate in the vicinity of 130-140 calories. This amount includes about 40 calories calculated from carbohydrates, most of which is fiber.

Calories in fiber are calculated differently than digestible carbohydrates.

Since most of the fiber is not used for energy production but ends up in the intestine performing other functions, and fiber does not have as many calories as starch or simple sugars, the USDA’s calculation of calories in chia seeds can’t be accurate.

Please note that a unique combination of nutrients, including fiber, omega-3 oil and proteins make chia seeds a great source of sustained energy that doesn’t cause insulin spikes.

The following is list of several nuts and seeds, and their kcal per 100 grams, taken from USDA (fiber included):

Macadamia nuts raw: 718 kcal
Pecans raw: 691 kcal
Walnuts raw: 654 kcal
Black walnuts dried: 619 kcal
Sunflower seeds dried: 584 kcal
Almonds raw: 579 kcal
Sesame seeds dried: 573 kcal
Pistachio: 560 kcal
Cashew nuts raw: 553 kcal
Flaxseeds raw: 534 kcal
Chia seeds dried: 486 kcal
Coconut meat raw: 354 kcal
Chinese chestnut raw: 224 kcal
European chestnut raw: 196 kcal

As you can see, they are at the bottom of the list.

To put it into perspective, it is approximately the amount of energy burned during a 30min walk (subject to body weight). (5, 6)

For other examples of the energy expenditure of other physical activities, see this Harvard Medical School link.

MAIN POINTS

  • Compared to nuts and seeds, there are not many calories in chia seeds
  • The composition of the unique nutrients in chia seeds, however, makes them a great sustained energy source

Health benefits of chia seeds

The following is a summary of the studied benefits of chia seeds. (7, 8, 9) Please note that the level of evidence varies, and for more details, please visit this article on health benefits.

  • Excellent source of nutrients that is good for bone and teeth health
  • Great source of sustained energy
  • Rich in antioxidants
  • May reduce blood sugar after a meal
  • May lower blood pressure
  • Decreases appetite
  • Improves digestive health
  • Improves general health in diabetics
  • Safe to eat for most of the population
  • Improves bowel regularity and increases gastrointestinal transit
  • Acts as a prebiotic in the colon
  • Prevents various diseases, if given to children from an early age.

MAIN POINTS

  • There are many reported chia seeds benefits with various levels of evidence. Please refer to the above mentioned article on chia seeds benefits.

Dangers of chia seed consumption

While chia seeds are very nutritious and including them in the diet has proven to have a positive impact on our health, there are some cases where they need to be restricted or avoided.

Here is a summary of the known health concerns related to chia seeds:

  • excess of fiber intake may cause digestive issues
  • allergies may occur, although they are extremely uncommon
  • may enhance the action of some blood pressure and blood sugar related drugs
  • may need to be restricted in IBD conditions and hypoglycemia
  • people with swallowing difficulties need to take special care when eating chia seeds
  • due to their capacity to absorb water, chia seeds may be contaminated.

You can find the full article on side effects of chia seeds here.

MAIN POINTS

  • Chia seeds are generally safe to eat, with a few exceptions. 

Chia seeds in food processing – physical properties

Useful properties of chia seeds in food processing:

  • When mixed with water, they form a gelatinous mass. This occurs due to their high contents of mucilage and gums.
  • Mucilage allows chia seeds to be used as an emulsifier and stabilizer in ice-cream production.
  • High content of antioxidants allows the storage of chia seeds.

Chia seeds can be consumed as whole seeds, and they can be milled, ground, and used as an oil extract. Their properties enable this versatile food to be used in the food industry for a variety of purposes. The properties are:

  • Efficient thickener
  • Gel forming
  • Bonding
  • Foam enhancer
  • Emulsifier
  • Retains moisture (helps in keeping baked goods moist)
  • Suspension agent
  • Clarifying agent
  • Rehydrating agent
  • Improves processing properties and slows down the oxidation of lipids of reconstructed ham-like products. (10)

MAIN POINTS

  • Food industries use chia seeds for many food processing methods due to their unique physical properties, such as forming a gelatinous mass with water, can be used as an emulsifier, and are high in antioxidants, which extends their shelf life.

How do you use chia seeds in your kitchen?

Taste of chia seeds

When eaten dried, chia seeds have a similar taste and texture to poppy seeds. The have a tiny, dense and crunchy texture.

When soaked in liquid, they are more like tapioca pearls. They are plump, soft, fuzzy and a little sweet.

They don’t need to be washed and are ready to eat.

Thanks to their high antioxidant contents, chia seeds are very stable and can be stored for years at room temperature without refrigeration. However, they need to be stored in a sealed container and in a dry place to prevent moisture and avoid insects.

The usual serving is 1-2 tbsp (dry seeds). However, as with the introduction of any high fiber food or supplements, start with a small amount and gradually increase it to avoid abdominal discomfort.

  1. How to use chia seeds in their dried form

    When used whole and dry, they are crunchy and have a mild nutty flavor. This means that they can be tossed on top of any meal, such as breakfast cereal, yogurt, smoothies, vegetable or fruit salads and desserts.

    Raw chia seeds can be also crushed or blended to a powder or flour, increasing the speed with which they are digested and diversifying their application in baking and cooking.

  2. How to use chia seeds by soaking method

    Soaked chia seeds are easier to digest and their nutrients are more readily available. When soaking,  remember that they absorb water 27 times its weight.

    Chia seeds can be soaked in water for a short period of time (e.g. 15 min-30 min) to form little fuzzy balls that can be used in drinks or added to desserts to add a different texture.

    If left in water for a longer period, chia seeds form a gel like substance and can be used as a thickener in soups, sauces, smoothies or desserts.

    Soaked chia seed gel can replace as much as 25% of oil or eggs in cakes, adding more nutritious value, while at the same time retaining quality. (11)

  3. How to use chia seeds by sprouting

    Chia seeds can be also sprouted to increase their nutrient load and to add the versatility of this super-seed. Sprouted chia seeds can be used as other sprouts – in the salads, sandwiches etc. Note that special care must be taken when sprouting chia seeds to prevent chia seeds from contamination with various bacteria or fungi.

NOTE: using plenty of chia seeds in your diet requires a higher water intake, due to their high fiber contents.

MAIN POINTS

  • You can use chia seeds in in three different forms: dried (whole or blended), soaked and sprouted
  • Chia seeds are one of the most versatile condiments in the kitchen and can be used in almost any recipe

Are chia seeds helpful in weight loss?

Studies on the direct effects of the consumption of chia seeds have been unsuccessful in showing a reduction in body fat or body weight, when chia seeds were added to the diet.

Nevertheless, there are some properties of chia seeds that can indirectly lead to weight loss, such as suppressing appetite that most likely comes from their high protein and fiber contents.

While chia seeds are not a silver bullet in losing weight, they are beneficial when incorporated into a healthy diet and lifestyle.

The following article on the effects of chia seeds on weight loss explains it in more details.

MAIN POINTS

  • Chia seeds haven’t been proven to directly cause weight reduction

What are the best chia seeds to buy?

There are many new chia seeds brands and there are no lab studies that compare different products.

Websites that list “the best chia seeds” products simply compare (often false) marketing claims from the product labels.

When buying chia seeds, there is also no need to compare the health claims on the labels of different chia seeds products as: gluten-free, vegan, suitable for vegetarians and vegans, high in protein, energy booster, great source of fiber, nice texture, full of antioxidants, rich in omega-3, low carb or great taste.

These qualities are almost the same across all chia seeds, as long as the product contains 100% of certified organic chia seeds!

Ignore the claims on labels, since they are often false or misleading. 

Although I haven’t seen genetically modified chia seeds yet, the continuously increasing demand for this novel superfood may soon lead to introduction of GMO chia.

Increased production also means that growers may start using more pesticides and herbicides. Although most of these products are organic, some growers may use herbicides such as Trifluralin.

This means that the most important information on the chia seeds products should be: 100% chia seeds and certified organic. (Certified organic foods cannot contain GMOs) 

Avoid buying chia seed sprouts since they may contain fungus, salmonella or other unhealthy components. Sprouting chia seeds is easy, so it is safer to do it at home in a controlled environment.

The health properties of chia seeds don’t depend on their color.

MAIN POINTS

  • The best chia seeds are simply 100% dried chia seeds that are certified organic and purchased from a trusted source
  • Don’t believe the health claims on the labels
  • The best chia seed oil is organic and cold pressed for maximum antioxidant content and purity (4)

Where to buy chia seeds?

Chia seeds have become so popular in the last 10 years, that they can be purchased in almost any supermarket, health food stores and through several online distributors.

It is important to buy chia seeds only from large well-known distributors to ensure that they have been properly handled and tested.

Smaller producers or unknown online sources may be risky, since chia seeds may be contaminated and / or not tested.

When buying online from Amazon.com or other similar websites, search for ratings for the particular products and read the reviews.

MAIN POINTS

  • Buy chia seeds from trusted, certified organic brands
  • When buying online do your research by reading the reviews of the product

How to store chia seeds?

There are claims that chia seeds can be stored for many years (even over five years) at room temperature.

I haven’t seen any references to the scientific studies supporting those claims, except for this report from European Commission that refers to the seeds sample stored in ideal conditions by researchers, rather than giving recommendations for home users:

European commission investigation on chia seeds safety, has shown that they are not affected when stored for 18 months in closed tissue material bags, protected from heavy light, at temperatures between 5 and 35 degrees Celsius and relative humidity of 40%-85%.

It is true that chia seeds are relatively stable (more stable than any other seeds) and thanks to their high antioxidant contents are resistant to rancidity.

However, rancidity is not the only issue when storing foods, such as seeds.

Salmonella, mold and insects may affect chia seeds’ quality, so care must be taken when storing chia seeds.

Ideally chia seeds should be stored at low temperatures, low humidity and preferably consumed shortly after purchasing.  

It is recommended that you use a tight sealed container (if possible in vacuum) in a dry cool place, like a pantry. A fridge and freezer are other storing options. (12)

Chia seed oil should be stored in a dark and cold place (e.g. fridge). (4)

MAIN POINTS

  • Store chia seeds in tight sealed container in a dry, dark and cool place.

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