Whether it’s kale, kombucha or cauliflower, these days the term “superfood” seems to be just about everywhere you look! But because of their uniquely gelatinous culinary properties and remarkable nutritional profile, I want to give a special shout out to chia seeds.
A flowering plant from the mint family, chia seeds are native to parts of Mexico and Guatemala and can be either black or white, although the black ones are much more common in stores these days and there’s no nutritional difference between them.
Chia Seed Magic
While chia seeds have only hit the scene in the past decade or so, and are still most popular in healthy-living circles, they’re actually an ancient staple food of the Aztec and Mayan cultures.
Actually, more than just a staple for the Aztecs, who offered chia seeds to their gods in religious ceremonies. The word “chia” means “strength” in Mayan, and it should come as no surprise. Loaded with minerals, protein, soluble fiber, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids, these teeny little seeds pack a nutritional punch far beyond their size – or their calories.
A one-ounce serving of chia seeds, about two dry tablespoons, serves up 4 grams of protein, about 30% of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of magnesium, manganese, and phosphorous, nearly 20% of the RDA of calcium, and smaller amounts of copper, zinc, and potassium. By weight chia seeds have more calcium than dairy products and they also contain all nine essential amino acids, making them a complete protein source. All that (and much more) for about 140 calories.
Now, that’s what I call a superfood! But that’s just the beginning of chia seed magic …
Low Carb and Super-High Fiber: A Healthier Alternative to Tapioca
If you’ve been to my Plant-Based Cooking website, you’ll see that there’s quite a few chia pudding recipes: Chocolate Chia Pudding, Easy Breakfast Chia Pudding, Carrot Chia Pudding, and Pumpkin Chia Pudding. And there’s a good reason for that! Chia seeds are uniquely suited for vegan plant-based puddings. These tiny, barely visible seeds plump up quite dramatically and form a viscous gel, kind of like tapioca, when soaked in water or other beverages for about two hours. Who needs gelatin, I say?
Chia seed gel is an outstanding vegan plant-based thickener for smoothies, sauces, soups, and stews. And if you like pudding as much as I do, you’ll love these healthy and varied chia pudding recipes. Be sure to try them all!
So, what’s the chia seed secret? It’s all about the fiber! Remarkably, chia seeds can soak up about ten times their weight in water – now go find another food that can do that! A one-ounce serving of chia seeds has 12 grams of total carbohydrates and out of that, nearly all (11 grams) are soluble fiber.
If you’re wanting to increase your fiber intake, lower your carbohydrates, or just like creamy comfort foods, you’ll have to check chia seeds out. Like all soluble fiber, that fiber-rich chia seed gel may help lower “bad” LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol which can build up in your arteries. It may also slow down digestion, helping to prevent blood sugar spikes, and promoting a sense of fullness. Gelled chia seeds can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week.
And if you prefer your fiber on the crunchy side, dry chia whole or ground chia seeds also go great in smoothies, as a topping for salads or cooked vegetables, stirred into yogurt, oatmeal, or other whole-grain porridges, and added to baked goods and snacks. With a mild, barely noticeable taste, chia seeds go well with all kinds of dishes, flavors, and cuisines.
A word of caution: It should be noted, that “The Nutrition Source,” published by Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, issues the following advisory:
There are a few rare cautions when eating chia seeds. A case report presented at the American College of Gastroenterology Annual Scientific Meeting in 2014 made headlines describing a patient who ate dry chia seeds followed by a glass of water. The seeds expanded in the esophagus and caused a blockage. Because they quickly swell after absorbing liquid, it is advised to eat chia seeds that have already been soaked in liquid or are served with moist food, such as oatmeal or yogurt. Do not eat dry chia seeds by themselves. People who have dysphagia, a condition that causes difficulty in swallowing (as was the case with this patient) or other digestive issues, should eat chia seeds with care.
In addition, since chia seeds are very high in fiber, if you eat too many you may have stomach distress (gas, bloating, constipation, or diarrhea), just like any fiber that you eat too much of. Take it easy if you’re unsure..
Other Uses: Chia Sprouts and Chia Egg Replacer
According to “The Nutrition Source,” chia seeds can be sprouted and can also be used as a replacement for whole eggs in baking.
Sprinkle about a teaspoon of chia seeds in a single layer in a terracotta saucer or unglazed clay dish, making sure they have enough space to grow. Spray with water several times, cover with plastic wrap or a clear glass dish, and place in a sunny spot. Spray morning and evening until green sprouts appear, about 3-7 days. Enjoy chia sprouts as a garnish for salads and sandwiches.
Chia Egg Replacer
To replace one whole egg in baking, mix 1 tablespoon whole chia seeds or 2 teaspoons ground chia seeds with 3 tablespoons water. Allow to sit for at least 5 minutes or until the mixture thickens to the consistency of a raw scrambled egg.
As you can see, chia seeds are amazingly versatile!
High in Omega-3s
Chia seeds are a great plant-based course of linoleic and alpha-linolenic acids, essential omega-3 fatty acids known as ALAs. They’re called “essential” fatty acids because the body can’t make ALAs and we have to get them from food. One ounce of chia seeds contains 7 grams of fat, 60% of which are ALAs. Omega-3s help raise “good” HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol.
There’s some evidence that ALAs, in particular, may reduce the risk and size of strokes as well as the damage that they do. Other sources of ALAs include flax seeds, hemp seeds, and walnuts.
High in Antioxidants
Chia seeds are very high in antioxidants, substances that may protect our bodies against free radicals. Free radicals are molecules that form when we digest food and when we’re exposed to tobacco smoke or radiation and which may be involved in heart disease, cancer, and other conditions.
Chia: The Little Seeds That Could
By now you should be convinced that chia seeds are worth exploring. From soups to stews, smoothies, and puddings, chia seeds are a unique culinary and nutritional powerhouse.
Please be in touch and let me know how you’re enjoying them!