What’s Up with That Food: Chia Seeds

Paste uncovers the background of foods you've always wondered about

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They’re rolled into energy bars, granola and tortillas. They’re mixed with tea (matcha and chai from Republic of Tea) and paired with yogurt. They can be whipped into a pudding. And who can forget Chia Pets from the ‘80s—where you’d attach chia seeds, water them, and the sprouted seeds formed something loosely resembling hair or fur. (That company is still around, but these days you can buy Chia Pet versions of President Obama and SpongeBob SquarePants.)

So, why are they everywhere? After all, they’re just seeds…tiny, versatile, nutrient-packed seeds. The American food landscape is packed with trendy ancient superfoods, whether it’s chia or maca or acai. Chia seeds started showing up in products around seven or eight years ago or so, and they just haven’t stopped since.

Type of food: Seed

Name: Salvia Hispanica, which is the most commercially marketed variety, and Salvia Columbariae, a thistle variety typically used in traditional and aboriginal cultures.

Origins: Basically, it’s an annual herb that bears purple or white flowers, which are responsible for producing the tiny seeds. The Columbariae variety of is found in Southwest U.S., and northern Mexico. Hispanica is a better cultivar for commercial use, and it’s been brought to South America, along with India, Australia and Africa, according to William Anderson, a.k.a. Chia Bill, a researcher, product development expert and pioneering advocate of chia.

Why/how did we start eating it: Anderson says the Native Americans of the Southwest were the first documented cultures to use the Columbariae variety; for the Hispanica variety, it was the Aztecs and Mayans in Mexico and Central America.

How it’s used: You can find chia in any number of places these days. It finds its way into dips, energy bars, granola, oatmeal. The Republic of Tea blends it into Matchia and Chia Chai.

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You can use it as a gluten-free and vegan way to thicken soups. Janie Hoffman, founder of Mamma Chia and author of The Chia Cookbook, uses the seeds in smoothies, dips and muffins, along with surprising moves such as roasted tomato compote with chia yogurt cheese. Hoffman’s company uses organic chia seeds and was the first company to bring to market a chia-based drink—Organic Vitality. With so many options, what’s an easy start for using chia at home? “Try adding chia to condiments,” says Hoffman. Baked goods benefit from chia, too—some vegan cookies and cakes employ ground chia as a binder in lieu of eggs.

One of the aspects of chia’s versatility is the fact that the seeds are hydrophilic, which is a fancy way of saying that when you place them water, they expand; specifically, to more to ten times their weight. (You can thank the soluble fiber for that reaction.) Some people like to drink what becomes a somewhat gelatinous water to help curb their appetite, but chia also adds a thickening quality to jams, sauce and dressings. (See the hot sauce made by Homesweet Homegrown.)

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According to Zach Pennington of US Chia, it’s even used as feed for horses (as the intelligent animals often used in therapeutic settings, it makes some sense to supply them with good brain food). US Chia sells wholesale and harvests chia throughout the United States, but mainly Kentucky and Florida.

How it’s purchased: Typically, the seeds can be bought in the bulk bins of many supermarkets and natural food stores. Certain manufacturers also sell them bagged, such as Bob’s Red Mill, Spectrum, and Navitas Naturals, among others. They are also found in a multitude of prepared products. Anderson likes the use of chia in yogurt as a “preferred approach,” because as a pre-biotic food, chia “feeds probiotic microbes and bacteria, which are strains that support healthy intestinal flora.”

According to Mic LeBel, a spokesperson for Navitas Naturals, chia seed powder is comprised of “chia seeds milled at low temperature into a fine powder.” This product provides alternatives for baking and cooking. “You can replace up to one-quarter of the flour called for in a recipe with milled chia. This replacement raises the fiber in your baked goods by a factor of eleven, while increasing the protein and omega-3 content as well,” says Hoffman.

Sensory experience: Chia seeds are tiny and mildly nutty. You can buy them either white or black; the darker seeds have a slightly denser antioxidant profile, says Anderson.

Nutrition and other benefits: These little seeds are powerhouses of nutrition, with stores of B vitamins (thiamine, niacin, riboflavin, folate) and omega-3 fatty acids. It’s also a loaded source of minerals such as calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorous and zinc, along with protein and fiber. Just one tablespoon of chia seeds contains five grams of fiber and three grams of protein.

Dara Godfrey, a registered dietician at Reproductive Medicine Associates of New York, recommends chia to patients undergoing fertility treatments. Thanks to the nutritional profile, specifically the fiber, protein and omega-3 content, “they are supportive throughout pregnancy,” says Godfrey. Anderson puts it another way. “All foods developed with chia amplify the nutritional uptake value of all nutrients that are being eaten.”

What’s In a Name: The word chia bears multiple interpretations. One comes from the Mayan word chiabaan, meaning “strengthening. The present Mexican state Chiapas takes its name from the Nahuatl/Aztec “chia water” or “chia river.”

Carrie Havranek is a recovering music critic and part-time baker who writes about food, farmers’ markets, chefs and restaurants—and sometimes travel—from her home in Easton, Pennsylvania. You may have seen her work elsewhere in Edible Philly, the Kitchn, or Frommer’s.

Chia seed close-up photo by Larry Jacobsen CC BY
Tomato compote photo reprinted with permission from The Chia Cookbook, by Janie Hoffman, copyright © 2014. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House LLC. Photographs copyright © 2014 by Eric Wolfinger
Ground chia photo courtesy of Navitas Naturals

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