When I first read about chia, all I could think was: ‘Yeah, sure, sounds way too good to be true.’ And it does sound amazing – tiny seeds, smaller in size than sesame seeds or flax, yet supposedly loaded with so much omega-3, fibre, protein and calcium that they are proclaimed to be a super food. In fact, in many respects, chia seeds are on a par with flaxseeds, but with around 25% less fat.
In all honesty, I’d never heard of chia before. As with so many ‘new’ discoveries, the hype that accompanied it seemed to overwhelm it. But although new on our food scene, chia has a history. For centuries, the chia plant (Salvia hispanica) has been growing in its natural habitat in Central and South America. A member of the mint family, it was a highly valued crop and its seeds were a staple food for Mayans, Aztecs and Southwest Native Americans providing energy and sustenance. Chia is fussy about where it grows. The past five years have seen Australia’s Kimberley region become the world’s largest producer thanks to being spot on when it comes to latitude and climate. You can see how well it grows here in the following photos from The Chia Company (www.thechiaco.com.au).
What do they look and taste like? Chia seeds look like tiny sesame seeds and can be black, white or grey. They are sold unprocessed. They’re an ingredient the food producers say you can sprinkle over or add to just about anything – muesli, smoothies or yoghurt – without disturbing the flavour. When combined with water they form a thick gel which helps make them a good mixer.
What’s in them? Like all seeds, chia seeds are high in fat especially the good fats. At around 30% fat, they’re lower than sesame seeds (50%) or nuts but make up for this with an extraordinarily high level of omega-3 – unusual in the plant world. They have 18% ALA which is around the same as flaxseeds (linseeds) at 22%, making they are one of the richest sources of the plant form of omega-3 called ALA.
They are also big on fibre. In fact, at 37% they are an outstanding source of fibre, in particular soluble fibre. They have the ability to absorb a high volume of liquid and become thick and gelatinous, thanks to some mucilages. This makes them slowly absorbed. I asked Prof Jennie Brand-Miller about their GI and she said: ‘A long time ago, I was sent chia seeds (part of a project on Pima Indian foods) to assess their GI … it was impossible because they don’t contain enough available carbohydrate.’ If you’re counting carbs, 1 level tablespoon (15 g) supplies less than 1 g of carbohydrate as well as 5 g of fat and 6 g of fibre. And they are gluten free.
Chia seeds contain 15% protein – as much as from wheat – and a variety of vitamins, minerals and trace elements including folate, phosphorus, iron, manganese, copper and potassium. Like almonds and sesame seeds, they have a surprisingly high content of calcium, usually found in dairy foods, but how well this is absorbed is debatable.
Ways to add chia seeds to your life
- Sprinkle them over cereal and muesli.
- Mix 1 tablespoon of the seeds into 1 cup of water and add the gel to smoothies, juices, yoghurts and soups.
- Use them to coat rissoles, meatloaf or burgers – they add crunch to the exterior.
- Because of their neutral taste and light colour, white chia seeds make an ideal part-replacement for white flour in home baking. You can replace 2 tablespoons of flour with chia when you make muffins, cakes and slices to boost the fibre and add some omega-3 fats. According to the Bread Research Institute of Australia, baking chia seeds doesn’t alter their nutritional profile.
Catherine Saxelby is an accredited dietitian and nutritionist and runs the Foodwatch Nutrition Centre. Her latest publication is The Shopper’s Guide to Light Foods for Weight Loss (available as a PDF). For more information on chia seeds, visit foodwatch.com.au.