Jane Says: Believe the Hype About Chia Seeds

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“Chia seeds seem to be the latest magic bullet, nutrition-wise. What are their health benefits? How are you supposed to eat them?”

—Sophia Ratliff

Thirty-odd years ago, who needed a puppy, kitten, goldfish, or even a genuine pedigreed Pet Rock when you could have a Chia Pet? Sold by master marketer Joseph Pedott, of the gadget company Joseph Enterprises, the hollow terra-cotta figurines in the shape of various animals were hyped as “the pottery that grows.” Shortly after being covered with moistened chia seeds, it produced a luxuriant green pelt to simulate the coat of each critter—topiary lite, in other words. The Chia Pet became a pop culture icon with enduring appeal: Licensed Chia Pet characters now include a gnome (a savvy double-down on the kitsch factor), as well as Scooby-Doo, SpongeBob, Hello Kitty, and presidents George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Barack Obama.

These days, the chia plant (Salvia hispanica), a desert-living member of the mint family, continues to amaze and delight as it morphs from novelty knickknack to nutritional powerhouse—or more accurately, it has come full circle, helped by shout-outs from health gurus such as Andrew Weil and Dr. Oz as well as Christopher McDougall’s 2009 book Born to Run, about the distance-running Tarahumara people of Mexico.

The seeds were a dietary staple of the Mayans and Aztecs, surpassed in importance only by corn and beans. A very rich source of ALA (plant-based) omega-3 fatty acids (the type found in pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, walnuts, canola oil, and some vegetables), they provide health benefits on par with fish and fish oil, yet are appropriate for a vegetarian or vegan diet. Chia seeds also contain fiber, protein, antioxidants, and minerals such as potassium, magnesium, calcium, and iron. Click here for a great nutritional comparison of chia, hemp, flax, and pumpkin seeds in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times.

Of particular interest to marathoners and other elite athletes are chia’s hydrating and endurance properties. The hydrophilic seeds can absorb up to ten times their weight in water, and that gelling factor physically slows down the process by which our bodies convert soaked chia seeds’ carbs into simple sugars. And you don’t have to be training to run 26-plus miles to benefit; in a piece published last spring in Bloomberg News, my pal David Sax reports that chia seeds have become a popular stimulant on Wall Street in more ways than one. Red Bull is so over.

Chia is mostly cultivated in Mexico and Bolivia. The seeds are smaller than sesame seeds and range in color from grayish brown to white; the color of the seeds has no real bearing on the nutritional value, although white chia seeds make more sense in certain dishes. According to most sources, chia seeds, unlike flax seeds, don’t have to be ground in order to release their full nutritional benefits. (They don’t seem to turn rancid as quickly as flax seeds, either.) They are very neutral in flavor—I find them almost flavorless—so they can be easily added to just about anything. For those people out there who must avoid wheat, rest assured that chia seeds are gluten free.

And although chia seeds have quickly found their way into nutritional supplements, juice drinks, energy bars, and other packaged foods, I vote for simply working them into your home-cooking repertoire. The seeds themselves are available at many supermarkets (Bob's Red Mill is one nationally distributed brand) as well as health food stores and many online sources.

For starters, sprinkle them on oatmeal or yogurt, or stir them into juice, a smoothie, or a refreshing Mexican agua de chia. They also make a healthful, delicious pudding; click here for a very helpful chia pudding overview, brought to you by Food 52.

I’m also thinking that chia sprouts or microgreens might be very nice in salads and sandwiches. There’s a handy primer in the January issue of Martha Stewart Living, along with a couple of useful recipes (grilled cheese, an omelet). I wouldn’t rely on Chia Pets for edible purposes, but instead buy certified organic seeds specifically for sprouting from a company like Sproutpeople. Although a Chia Pet would look really, really cute next to a little sprout farm on a sunny windowsill ….

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Jane Lear: Currently the features director at Martha Stewart Living, Jane was also on staff at Gourmet for almost 20 years. There, she helped develop the concept of an annual produce issue—the first time a food magazine ever grappled with the politics of the plate—and headed up seven subsequent produce issues. She also wrote about culinary techniques as well as the popular "Kitchen Notebook" section. Jane is a contributor to numerous cookbooks and now blogs regularly at JaneLear.com. As our weekly food advice columnist, she's here to answer questions about the food landscape, from policy to no-fail cooking techniques. TakePart.com

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