Small but packs a punch

by | April 3, 2013

There is a lot of fuss about chia and its reign over flaxseed. We give you the lowdown.


BY: Derrick Ong


Salvia hispanica, commonly known as chia, is a species of flowering desert plant in the mint family, Lamiaceae. This plant is native to central and southern Mexico and Guatemala. Evidence have suggested that chia was cultivated by the Aztecs as early as in the in pre-Columbian times and economic historians have added that it was as important as maize as a food crop. At present, chia is still consumed in Mexico and Guatemala, with the seeds sometimes grounded, while whole seeds are used for nutritious drinks and as a food source. Today, chia is grown commercially in its native Mexico, as well as in Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador,  Australia and Guatemala. In 2008, Australia was the world’s largest producer of chia.

Chia is grown commercially for its seeds, a food that is rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, since the seeds yield 25-percent to 30-percent extractable oil, including alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Chia seeds are typically small ovals with a diameter of about 1mm (0.039in). They are mottle-coloured with brown, gray, black and white.

According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), a one-ounce (28g) serving of chia seeds contains 9g of fat, 5mg of sodium, 11g of dietary fibre, and 4g of protein. The seeds also have 18 percent of the recommended daily intake of calcium, 27-percent phosphorus and 30-percent manganese, similar in nutrient content to other edible seeds such as flax or sesame.

The protein concentration found in chia seeds (19 percent to 23 percent) is also considerably higher than those found in wheat (14 percent), corn (14 percent), rice (8.5 percent), oats (15.3 percent) and barley (9.2 percent). It should be noted though that an ounce of chia seeds (about three tablespoons) contains about 200kcal of energy, and so may not be suitable for certain people on energy restricted, weight loss diets. Despite popular belief, there is currently no current scientific evidence to show that chia seeds can assist in weight loss.


What benefit do you gain from eating them?

Chia seeds & protein

People often point out that chia seeds are a source of all nine essential amino acids that you need for good health that your body can’t produce. Unfortunately, studies have shown that the protein in chia isn’t very digestible. For raw chia seeds, only about 34 percent of the protein is absorbed and about 11 percent is absorbed from toasted chia seeds. On the plus-side though, the protein in chia flour is most digestible with almost 80 percent digested and absorbed. Unless you are using chia flour, you get the benefits of only a fraction of the amino acids in chia.

Chia seeds & Omega-3

Chia seeds are a good source of Omega-3 fatty acids – but it is the plant-based form of Omega-3 called ALA. To get maximum benefits from ALA, it needs to be converted to EPA and DHA, the two forms of Omega-3s with documented health benefits. Your body can only convert a small portion (about one percent to two percent) of ALA you get from diet into EPA and DHA. So eating chia seeds won’t necessarily give you the same benefits as the Omega-3s in fatty fish like salmon.

Source of fibre

The one area in which chia seeds excel is with their fibre content. In a world where so few people meet their fibre requirements, a serving of chia seeds can have a significant impact. A one-ounce serving of chia seeds has an impressive 11g of fibre. With a single serving, you’ve met almost half of your daily fibre requirements! A significant portion of the fibre in chia seeds is soluble fibre, the kind that lowers cholesterol levels and helps to protect against heart disease. Fibre also expands in your digestive tract and causes you to feel full and keeps blood sugar levels stable.

Good source of calcium

Chia seeds are a good source of plant-based calcium. Three tablespoons of chia seeds has over 300mg of calcium. It’s a good way to get the calcium your bones need if you eat a vegan diet or don’t like to eat dairy products.

Balance blood sugar

Keeping balanced levels of blood sugar is important for both health and energy. Blood sugar may spike after meals, especially if you eat high-glycemic index (GI) foods like white rice or potatoes. This can lead to ‘slumps’ in your day where you feel tired and out of energy. By balancing your blood sugar, you not only lower your risk for Type 2 diabetes, but you also ensure steady, constant energy throughout your day. Both the gelling action of the seeds and its unique mix of soluble and insoluble fibre combine to slow down your body’s conversion of starches into sugars. If you eat chia with a meal, it will help you turn your food into constant, steady energy rather than a series of ups and downs that wear you out.

Flavourful punch

How can a seed with NO flavour help the foods you already like to taste better? First, because they have no taste of their own, chia seeds will never cover up or add to the flavour of your food. Second, when the seeds hydrate, they take on the taste of whatever they were added to. Put them in pudding? Chocolaty! Swirl them into a smoothie? Fruity! The same thing goes for dressings, dips, salsas, sauces and much more. These two factors combine to let chia seeds take on the taste of whatever you add them to. They distribute and never dilute the flavours you love.


Can you explain the different types of chai such as seeds, bran, ground, gel, etc? Which is better and has more benefits?

These are just different forms of the same product which can be used for different food preparations. Most people use the raw seeds directly to add to foods, but in order to incorporate chia into grain foods like breads, cakes or biscuits, they would need to be ground up into a flour first. As mentioned before, chia flour has a better bioavailability in terms of protein and amino acid content than seeds. Gelled seeds are simply chia seeds added into water. The seeds absorb water and expand in volume, forming a gel. These may be useful when incorporating chia into drinks and shakes. The gel helps to slow down digestion and promote feeling of fullness which helps to control both appetite and blood sugar. However, given that chia is usually eaten with other foods which contain some fluid or water, you are going to get a gel anyway eventually in your stomach. (EDITOR’S NOTE: Chia bran is the husk of the chia seed.)


Is chia better than flaxseed?

Chia has double the amount of fibre as flaxseed, so gram for gram, it is superior to flaxseed in this respect. However, flaxseed contains a lot more antioxidant substances called lignans which may be beneficial for cardiovascular health, but the research is still somewhat controversial in this area.


How much should you eat and when? 

For general purposes of health, nutrition and energy, an adult would usually consume about two to two-and-a-half tablespoons of dry seeds (or nine tablespoons of gelled seeds) in one day spread out across various meals. However, it is important to progressively ease into this diet by starting with one tablespoon initially, gradually increasing the amount. It is important to note that one tablespoon of dry chia seeds contains 70 calories and thus should be taken in moderation with a well-balanced diet and lots of fluids.


Can you tell me more about adding chia to one’s diet?

As mentioned earlier, chia seeds can be eaten almost any way! They can be sprinkled in cereals, oats and salads or mixed into peanut butter, jams and other varieties of spreads. Chia seeds can also be mixed with yogurt or blended and added into smoothies, juices and shakes. Chia gel can substitute for half the butter in most recipes! The food will bake the same and taste the same (or better) from the addition of the chia gel. All you need to do is divide the amount of butter or oil in half, and then use the same amount of chia gel to fill in. Everything from cookies to cakes to muffins, pancakes and waffles can be made with chia gel as your butter replacement.


What precautions are there with chia seeds? Can cancer patients take them?

There is currently no scientific evidence that suggests for cancer patients to not consume chia seeds. There have been no side effects recorded in the consumption of chia seeds as well. It is however important to note that when mixed with water, chia seeds form into gel after approximately 20 minutes. It is believed that chia seeds have the same effect inside of the stomach. This phenomenon may cause you to feel full faster and can result in delayed stomach emptying. This side effect may be problematic for some people with digestive problems and may cause discomfort.

Chia can also interact with some medications due to delayed stomach emptying. It may also affect the way the body metabolises medications, causing them to be absorbed at a different rate. Individuals taking medications should consult their doctor before using chia. Also, anyone taking blood thinners such as Coumadin should avoid chia unless approved by their doctor as Omega-3 is a natural blood thinner. If you are scheduled for surgery, ask if you can continue using chia seeds in your diet in the days preceding your procedure.


How does one purchase chia seeds? Should they look for 100-percent pure and from a certain country?

Chia seeds can be purchased at most organic and healthfood stores as well as at selected supermarkets. It costs S$7 to S$8 per 100g, and is usually sold in packages of 400g to 500g. Consumers should always purchase 100-percent pure chia seeds which originate from US, Mexico or Australia as these are the countries in which they are mostly produced.


What is the difference between white and black chia seeds? 

Any colour difference between chia seeds is more likely due to the different conditions and locations in which the seed was grown than the nutritional content of the seed itself. As such, there is no reason to suspect any genetic difference between them that might affect the nutrition content of the seeds. In addition, any nutritional difference present is insignificant and negligible.


What is the storage/shelf life of chia seeds?

Chia seeds do not require refrigeration or any special storage container. As long as you keep the bag in a dry and cool place, your seeds will stay fresh and ready to use. Chia gel, on the other hand, can be kept in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

Note: Do not attempt to wash the chia seeds as they will immediately become sticky and start absorbing water to form chia gel. 

Derrick Ong is an accredited practising dietitian (Australia) and an accredited dietitian of Singapore. He is the director of a nutrition consultancy called Eat Right.

(** PICTURES courtesy of The Chia Co in Australia.)




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