Quad Cities, IL/IA

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By Benjamin Goodin

The last time you thought about Chia, it was probably because an
infomercial got a cute, catchy tune wedged into your mind and encouraged
you to slather novelty terra cotta farm animals with a green paste.

Although you may have owned a Chia Pet in the 80s or 90s, or perhaps
received one recently as a white elephant gift, the sad little bush you
could grow in your windowsill is probably better for your nutrition than
as a houseplant. As unappetizing as it sounds, that grainy paste used
to grow those tiny green sprouts holds a very nutritious secret — chia

Chia seeds, it seems, are everywhere in grocery stores as of the last
few years. You’ve probably noticed bags heavy with seeds that look like
miniature pebbles infiltrating the healthfood and grain aisles of your
local supermarket en masse. Given America’s collectively growing concern
with nutrition, it’s no surprise that the diminutive seeds have been
rebranded from houseplant to power food.

Chia seeds come from the salvia hispanica plant, an annual herb that is
native to the elevated altitudes of Mexican and Guatemalan hillsides.
There’s an entomological debate over whether “chia” means “strength,” or
“oily” in the language of the ancient Mayans. Despite linguistic
uncertainty, the fact remains that this relative of mint was cultivated
by a number of ancient South American civilizations for its nutritious
seeds. This agriculture was popularized because of the seeds’ ability to
be very filling in even small quantities, leading to its use as a
staple crop in the diet of these peoples. Contemporarily, the plant has
regained popularity during our diet-conscious times, and is now grown in
a number of South American countries and even in a few hilly regions of
the United States.

The reasons you may have noticed that so many people have had chia on
their lips, and stuck between their teeth, lately is undoubtedly the
tiny seed’s unique properties and nutritional value. Gram for gram,
there are few other foods that are as nutrient dense as chia seeds. On
top of that, most all of the nutrition they provide is optimal in the
respect that comes in forms easily digestible and absorbable with little
drawback or waste.

The least favorable measurement of chia seeds is their fats ratio, which
is still very impressive. Five to six of the nine grams of fat in an
ounce (two tablespoons) of chia seeds are crucial, circulatory-health
powerhouses — omega-3 fatty acids. Those same two tablespoons provide
four grams of protein, which is about two more grams than a same-weight
serving of eggs. A singular ounce of chia seeds provides an amazing 11
grams of fiber that, when subtracted from the 12 total carbohydrates per
serving, nets you a single, blood-sugar friendly, net carb. The seeds
contain trace signatures of a few helpful vitamins and minerals — most
notably, 18 percent of your daily calcium and 27 percent of your
phosphorus needs. With chia, you’ll be staying full and managing your
glycemic index like a champ at a paltry 137 calories per serving!

Chia seeds will also make a number of people with specific dietary needs
and preferences happy — chia contains no gluten whatsoever, and because
of the hardiness of the plant, the bulk of chia set for human
consumption is overwhelmingly grown organically and without genetic

Unlike some other seeds, chia doesn’t require that it be ground in order
for your digestive system to access the nutrition within. Grinding will
improve absorption of minerals and vitamins, but taking the time to
turn chia into a grainy powder won’t improve nutrition by a great deal.
It will, however, allow it to be utilized slightly differently when
cooking. Ground chia seeds can make a great, nutrient-rich flour
additive for baked goods or even as an interesting alternative to eggs
in some recipes.

One of the most notable qualities of chia, in terms of preparation and
consumption, is their ability to gel. Since the seeds have such high
fiber content, they react to water (and hydrogen-based liquids in
general) by absorbing it. The little seeds can hold about ten times
their weight in fluid, and the protein within forms weak, squishy bonds
as they swell, creating a sort of viscous, tapioca-like consistency.
This soaking process doesn’t destroy any of the inherent nutrition in
the seeds; it actually makes them a little bit easier to digest while
boosting hydration levels. The resultant “pudding” as it is so often
called, has found traction as an oatmeal additive and even as its own
breakfast-appropriate dish once mixed with some light sweeteners and
chopped fruit.

Left dry or eaten raw, chia seeds taste slightly nutty and add lots of
crunch to breads, salads, cereal, or energy bars. Whatever you choose to
eat the raw seeds with, bring a spoon and maybe a toothpick; the
microscopic seeds are small enough to easily evade a fork and just big
enough to let you know they’re stuck between your teeth.