Chia seeds: Latest craze or genuine health supplement?

Chia is a flowering species of the mint family that is native to central and southern Mexico and Guatemala. It is also being hyped as the latest wonder food.

Salvia-hispanicaThere is anecdotal evidence for the positive health effects of chia, including boosting energy, stabilizing blood sugar, aiding digestion, and lowering cholesterol.

The word “chia” is derived from the Nahuatl chian, meaning oily. It is one of two plants known as chia or Salvia hispanica. The other is Salvia columbariae, more commonly known as golden chia. The Mexican state of Chiapas got its name from the Nahuatl “chia water” or “chia river”.

Chia is grown commercially for its seed, a food rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Chia seed is traditionally consumed in Mexico and the south-western United States, but until recently it was not widely known in Europe. Today, chia is grown commercially in its native Mexico, as well as in Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Australia.

Chia is recorded in the Mendoza Codex and the Florentine Codex, Aztec documents created between 1540 and 1585. Both describe and picture the plant and its use by the Aztecs. The Mendoza Codex indicates that it was widely cultivated and paid as a tribute in 21 of the 38 Aztec provincial states. Economic historians suggest that it was a staple food as widely used as maize.

Chia-seed(2)This little seed – which comes in either white or dark brown and black colours – can be eaten whole or milled. It has a huge nutritional profile. However, caveat emptor. Chia seeds are a source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a type of “short-chain” omega-3 fatty acid, whereas fish is a source of the “long-chain” fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Research has linked consumption of EPA and DHA to better heart health, improved brain function and other possible health benefits such as countering depression and rheumatoid arthritis. The same is not true of ALA.

That said, here are 10 reasons to add chia seeds to a diet:

  • A 28-gram or one-ounce serving of chia has 11 grams of dietary fibre – about a third of the recommended daily intake for adults.
  • Chia seeds are packed with omega-3 fatty acids that are important for brain health.
  • A serving of chia seeds has 18% of the recommended daily intake for calcium, which is needed to maintain bone and oral health and to prevent osteoporosis.
  • One serving of chia seeds, or 28 grams, has 30% per cent of the recommended intake of manganese, a mineral that is good for bones and helps the body use other essential nutrients like biotin and thiamine.
  • With 27% of the daily value for phosphorus, chia seeds help the body to synthesize protein for cell and tissue growth and repair.
  • Chia seeds make a great source of protein for vegetarians and don’t have any cholesterol.
  • Chia’s stabilizing effect on blood sugar also fights insulin resistance which can be tied to an increase in belly fat.
  • The amino acid tryptophan is found in chia seeds. Tryptophan helps regulate appetite, sleep and to improve mood.
  • Chia seeds are believed to improve blood pressure in diabetics and may also increase healthy cholesterol.
  • Chia may be a potential natural treatment for type-2 diabetes because of its ability to slow down digestion.
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