When we talk about chia, we usually mean raw seeds of the Mexican chia (Salvia hispanica). Chia seeds share similarities with flaxseed and can be used in similar ways in cooking.
How should you use chia seeds in cooking? Chia seeds are becoming increasingly popular as they can be used so diversely in modern cuisine. They can be used as a crispy topping in soups, salads, and desserts, and can add variety to bread and biscuits. Chia seeds are a tried and tested hit in smoothies, muesli, and ice cream. You can also sprout chia seeds and use the sprouts in salads, or grind them into a nutritious flour and use them for baking.
Chia is best known in its gel form, which is also known as chia pudding. Raw chia seeds expand significantly when they come into contact with liquid, growing several times their original size to form a gelatinous mass. This gel can be used in many ways, with chia pudding (made with oat milk or rice milk) being a delicious breakfast or dessert. In baking, chia gel can substitute up to 50 percent of the required amount of fat, and it can also be a binding agent that substitutes eggs in vegan cooking. In addition, chia seeds can be used instead of gelatin to make a healthy variety of jams.
As chia seeds can swell up to 27 times their weight, you should make sure you drink enough fluids after eating them. This prevents problems in the gastrointestinal tract from arising when the seeds gel.
Chia seeds are an ingredient in our gluten-free, raw vegan Erb Muesli. This muesli mix not only contains citrus fruits rich in vitamin c and berries with antioxidants, it also contains pseudo-grains, seeds, and golden millet. You might like to try the version Erb Muesli with Rolled Oats — unless, however, you are following a strictly raw diet. Oats are never sold raw as food; they have always at the very least been dried.
In pre-Hispanic times, roasted chia seeds were ground into a flour called Chianpinolli, which was combined with cornflour to make tortillas, tzoalli (tamales), and thick gruels (chianatolli). Soft drinks made from chia seeds, lemon, and sugar or fruit juice are still popular today, and are known as “agua de chia,” “chia fresca,” or “Iskiate.”1
Mix 200 mL coconut milk with agave syrup and ground vanilla, stir in 2 tablespoons chia seeds, and refrigerate overnight. The next morning, puree a mango and layer the chia pudding and mango puree in a glass. You can also use raspberries or blueberries instead of mango.
To make the raw version, puree 200 g strawberries and add the juice of half of a lemon. Sweeten with a little agave syrup. Add 2 tablespoons of chia seeds and mix well. Leave the jam in the fridge overnight to thicken. The jam keeps in the fridge for about two days. If you boil the fruit before adding the chia, the jam’s shelf life increases to about one week.
Chia seeds were authorized as food in the European Union in 2009. They are not only available in health food stores and organic supermarkets but also be purchased in major supermarkets such as Walmart, Whole Foods Markets, Kroger, and Safeway (United States); Asda, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Aldi, and Holland & Barret (Great Britain); Metro, Extra Foods, and Goodness Me (Canada); Coles, Woolworths, and Harris Farm (Australia).
Chia seeds are grown in various countries throughout the world and have a long shelf-life; they are therefore available year-round.
Chia seeds come in a variety of colors including black, black-spotted, white, and gray. Regardless of their color, all chia seeds have a similar taste and nutrient composition. Black chia seeds are more common and are therefore usually cheaper. A brown tinge may indicate that the chia seeds are of lower quality. Chia seeds usually cost €10 to 40.
When chia seeds are organically grown, this means that chemical fertilizers and pesticides have not been used in the cultivation process. However, experts from the German magazine “Öko-Test” found residues of toxic herbicides in organic chia seeds that exceed the legal limit.3 This shows that certified organic produce from third-world countries may not have flawless standards. If this is the case, locally grown flaxseed may be a cheaper and more ecological alternative, particularly as flaxseed has similar properties to chia seeds (strong swelling and mucilage capacities, and regulates stools) and similar nutrients (high content of omega-3 fatty acids).
Chia seeds and chia oil are relatively newly approved foods in the European Union (the European Union categorizes chia as a “novel food”). In bread, baked goods, breakfast cereals, and nut mixes, chia seeds may constitute up to 10 % of the product, and in yogurt and fruit juices this figure is 1.3 %. Retailers are not allowed to advertise the health benefits of chia seeds as long-term studies on the health effects of chia are still being carried out. Nonetheless, it is legal to advertise chia seeds as being high in fiber — the seeds contain more than 6 g / 100 g fiber (34 g, in fact!). Chia seed packaging must contain the label “chia seeds (salvia hispanica)” and must be sold to consumers prepackaged.2,4
In addition, all chia packages must indicate that your daily intake of chia seeds should not exceed 15 grams. According to the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority), the purpose of this label is preventative consumer protection.2 The recommendation is mainly based on the lack of long-term studies on chia, not on conclusive findings regarding the health dangers of chia seeds.
Mexican chia, also known as Spanish sage, can be found across a large region that extends from Mexico to Peru. This species is common in many regions (e.g., the Caribbean). The chia plant is not hardy, needing minimum temperatures of +5 degrees to flourish. It is an upright, branched, annual plant that grows to be up to 60 to 90 cm tall and has a circumference of 30 to 45 cm. Its leaves are pointed, green, and egg-shaped, growing up to 8 cm long. The chia’s pale blue flowers bloom in dense clusters that are up to 15 cm long.9 The chia plant is an endocarp or jointed fruit, which splits into very small, approximately 2 mm long and 1.25 mm wide seeds.1
Chia seeds have a long shelf life. They can be stored for several years in dark, dry, airtight containers (e.g., screw-top jars and cans).2 Chia seeds should ideally be stored at room temperature — the humidity of a refrigerator causes the seeds to spoil quickly. Chia pudding should be refrigerated and stays fresh for four to five days.
At 18 g per 100 g, chia seeds contain a high content of omega-3 fatty acids (alpha-linolenic acid, ALA). Chia seeds also contain a lower amount of omega-6 fatty acids (linoleic acid, LA) than most vegetables. Just 10 g of chia seeds is equivalent to 89 % of a woman’s recommended daily intake (RDI) (based on a diet of 2000 calories per day). This means that eating 12 g of chia seeds would be sufficient to get your daily supply of omega-3 fatty acids. Flaxseed, in comparison, contains 23 g of omega-3 fatty acids per 100 g, which is the highest concentration of omega-3 fatty acids of all vegetable foods.1 To benefit from flaxseed’s and chia seeds’ polyunsaturated fatty acids, the seeds should be freshly ground before eating.
At 1:3, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in chia seeds is very positive.
According to the Swiss Federal Office for Public Health, the average ratio of omega-6 (linoleic acid) to omega-3 fatty acids should not exceed 5:1. However, chia seeds have an inverse ratio of 1:3, which is 15 times better. This means that eating chia seeds is a good way to get the average intake down to 5:1 or lower. And in flaxseed, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids even better at 1:5 - to 1:3.However, many other types of seeds and nuts have a very poor ratio (e.g., cashews come in at 130:1 and pumpkin seeds at 180:1).5
Chia seeds are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids. When combined with a low intake of omega-6 fatty acids, a healthy body can use omega-3s to produce eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), both of which have anti-inflammatory effects.6
Chia seeds have a relatively high protein content for a pseudo-grain (17 g per 100 g), with a fairly balanced amino acid pattern. Lysine is the limiting amino acid in chia seeds (0.97 g = 52 % of the recommended daily intake), while chia seeds contain a far higher content of tryptophan than other amino acids.5
Chia seeds are rich in fiber, containing 34 g per 100 g. This is even more fiber than flaxseed (27 g per 100 g), legumes, and many other seeds.5
What is noteworthy is that chia seeds contain traces of selenium, which is found in negligible quantities in European soils, and thus in most plant foods. As little as 10 g chia seeds provide 5.5 µg selenium, which is equivalent to about 10 % of the recommended daily intake for adults. Durum wheat cultivated in the US contains slightly higher amounts of selenium. According to the USDA (US Department of Agriculture), 100 g of durum wheat contains the recommended daily intake of selenium. However, Brazil nuts contain a much higher quantity of selenium. A Brazil nut that weighs about 4 g contains 76.68 µg selenium or 139 % of the recommended daily intake (RDI).5 Important information on the dangers of excessive consumption of selenium can be found in the article “Daily Requirement for Selenium: Brazil Nuts.”
Chia seeds also contain phytonutrients such as phenolic acids (caffeic acid) and antioxidant flavonols from the flavonoid group (myricetin, quercetin, and kaempferol).4
There are relatively few vitamins in chia seeds compared to the essential fatty acids, proteins, minerals, and other trace elements that they contain. Detailed information on the nutritional value of chia seeds can be found in the tables below.
The term superfood is often used to describe chia seeds. However, the term superfood is overriding used for marketing and does not guarantee that a food is particularly healthy.
Scientific research on the effects of chia seeds on cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, and cancer is still in its early phases. Conclusive statements cannot yet be made about the studies. However, small clinical studies have shown that in some patients with high blood pressure chia seeds can help to lower blood pressure. Consuming chia seeds has also been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease in type II diabetics.2
Are chia seeds good for digestion? Chia seeds’ fiber and gel-forming capacities increase stool volume and accelerate the intestinal passage of food. When eaten with a sufficient amount of fluid, the seeds can help with constipation and leave you feeling fuller for longer. Clinical studies have not yet confirmed whether chia seeds can help with weight loss.2
Chia seeds are a suitable food for people with celiac disease (celiac sprue, gluten-sensitive enteropathy). Before buying chia seeds and foods containing chia, check for the gluten-free symbol (crossed grain), which only licensed products are allowed to have. The trace elements that chia seeds contain can intercept free radicals in the body, thereby protecting cells from damage.2
Can chia seeds be harmful? All foods have positive and negative effects. Uncertainties exist regarding potential allergies to chia seeds.7 People who suffer from allergies should be careful when eating chia seeds, as allergic reactions can occur.2
According to current research, a daily intake of 15 g of chia seeds is considered harmless to health; however, long-term studies are lacking. In the US, authorities recommend a maximum daily intake of 48 g.8
Do chia seeds have side effects? Chia seeds have blood-thinning properties and may interact with blood-thinning drugs. Chia seeds should not be consumed before surgery. People with low blood pressure should be aware that chia seeds can lower their blood pressure even further. In the case of blood-clotting disorders, or when taking blood-thinning medication, consult your doctor about consuming chia seeds.8 Using chia seeds to dilute blood can be an effective way to replace blood thinners.
When consuming chia oil capsules, follow the instructions on the packet. Scientists consider a daily dose of 2 g of chia oil to be harmless to one’s health.2
Ethnobotanical analyses of sources from the sixteenth century onward indicate that chia was mainly used for medical purposes. Chia seeds and occasionally other parts of the chia plant were used in recipes to treat ailments whose symptoms are described imprecisely in available records. According to Wikipedia, these diseases cannot be attributed to any modern diagnosis.1
The Mexican chia was originally found from southern Mexico down to Ecuador and was an important crop in pre-Spanish times. The Aztecs, Teotihuacán, and Toltecs are among the pre-Spanish societies that grew chia seeds and where it was an important local staple food. After the Spaniards conquered the Aztec Empire, chia cultivation quickly collapsed.1
Chia seeds only regained public awareness after Cirilido Chacarito, a 52-year-old indigenous Tarahumara man, won a 100-mile race in the United States. Christopher McDougall’s book “Born to Run” triggered the chia boom.1
Chia seeds can be sown in sunny locations in loose soils from May onward (Europe). Since the plant grows in height and width, it is advisable to keep larger distances between the seedlings. The plants rarely need fertilizer, but they require moist soil without waterlogging. Chia plants bloom in September, and about 45 days later you can cut off the upper part of the plants and shake out the ripe seeds.
Chia plants need permeable, well-ventilated, nitrogenous, nutrient-rich soils without excessive salinity. Sandy or sandy loam soils are ideal; however; the soil should not be too wet. To grow chia in tropical and subtropical regions, a protected, sunny, and frost-free location is ideal. Chia is a drought-tolerant plant, and temperatures between 16 and 26 degrees Celsius are ideal. Chia can also be cultivated at higher altitudes of between 400 and 2,500 meters. The plants have an average yield of 1000 to 1500 kg per hectare. The seeds are ready for harvest 120 to 180 days after sowing.1
Today, chia is not only cultivated in Mexico and Guatemala, but also in South American countries, in southern parts of the US, in Australia, and in parts of Africa (e.g., Kenya). In principle, quinoa cultivation is only suitable in regions without excessive rainfall as the plants tend to rot when exposed to too much water.1 Although the chia plant is sensitive to cold, scientists at the University of Hohenheim (Stuttgart) have been trying to plant chia in Central Europe and have successfully used regional cultivation of new chia genotypes. Regarding Yacón, quinoa, and chia, a professor at the university Dr. Simone Graeff-Hönniger holds the following motto: “Bring regional superfood to German fields.”
The flowers of sage species including chia are an important nectar source.9 As a blue-flowering plant of the sage species, chia flowers are usually pollinated by bees or hummingbirds.10
The chia (Salvia hispanica) is of the sage (Salvia) genus and in the mint family (Lamiaceae). This sage species was originally found almost exclusively in Mexico and Central America. The seeds of the chia plant are considered pseudo-grains.1
In contrast, the Californian chia (Salvia columbariae) grows in the southwest of North America, where it was a staple food for North American indigenous populations.11
The genus sage (Salvia) is made up of about 900 different species, predominantly evergreen shrubs and low shrubs. Sage grows in temperate, subtropical, and dry tropical zones worldwide.9
What does the word chia mean? The word chia is derived from the Nahuati word chian, which means oily. The term chia can also be used to describe species other than Salvia hispanica.11
Chia seeds are also referred to as chia, chia grain, chia fresca, and salba grain.
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