Chia - The Next Superfood

From what I saw (and it seemed pretty apparent to most people I spoke with as well) the hottest product at this year’s Natural Products Expo East Show in Baltimore, MD (9/26-28) was chia. From beverages to muffins, products incorporating chia were everywhere, and quite frankly, with good reason.

While chia seeds may be a relatively new phenomenon in North America, they are by no means new as a healthy food. The seeds are native to South America and have been a staple in Mayan and Aztec diets for centuries. They are beginning to draw the interest of more and more people for their health benefits and uses in cooking. It turns out the South American staple is a rich source of nutrients and antioxidants.

Chia seeds are rich in polyunsaturated fats, especially omega-3 fatty acids. Chia seeds are composed of 60 percent omega-3s, making them one of the richest plant-based sources of these fatty acids - specifically, of alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA. The omega-3s in chia seeds can help reduce inflammation, enhance cognitive performance and reduce high cholesterol.

Most people have heard about omega-3 fatty acids in recent years, but are we familiar enough with them that we can we comfortably and confidently discuss with our customers what they are, and why they are beneficial to our health? I’m going to get a little technical here for a moment, but the next paragraph provides a few key talking points you can use when answering questions or discussing the health benefits of chia, and specifically omega-3 fatty acids.

A growing body of scientific research indicates that these healthy fats help prevent a wide range of medical problems, including cardiovascular disease, depression, asthma, and rheumatoid arthritis. Unlike the saturated fats found in butter and lard, omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated and when eaten in appropriate amounts, each type of fat can contribute to health. The importance of omega-3 fatty acids in health promotion and disease prevention cannot be overstated. Omega-3 fatty acids are considered essential fatty acids. We need them for our bodies to work normally. The three most nutritionally important omega-3 fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Alpha-linolenic acid is one of two fatty acids traditionally classified as "essential." The other fatty acid traditionally viewed as essential is an omega 6 fat called linoleic acid. These fatty acids have traditionally been classified as "essential" because the body is unable to manufacture them on its own and because they play a fundamental role in several physiological functions. As a result, we must be sure our diet contains sufficient amounts of both alpha-linolenic acid and linoleic acid.

Chia is very rich in omega-3 fatty acids, even more so than flax seeds - which has been the omega-3 star for several years now. And chia has another advantage over flax: it is so rich in antioxidants that the seeds don't deteriorate and can be stored for long periods without becoming rancid. Chia seeds also provide fiber, as well as calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, manganese, copper, iron, molybdenum, niacin, and zinc.

When added to water and allowed to sit for 30 minutes, chia forms a gel. Researchers suggest that this reaction also takes place in the stomach, slowing the process by which digestive enzymes break down carbohydrates and convert them into sugar. This is how Chia has been able to become popular in beverages, as with our own delicious Chia Star drinks.

Chia seeds are incredibly easy to incorporate into your diet. The seeds are essentially tasteless (perhaps a slight nutty flavor) so they won't affect the flavor profile of your food, which makes them easy to integrate into your meals. They can be sprinkled whole on top of salads, or added to smoothies, and used in just about every way you can imagine.

Because of its nutritional value chia is now being added to other foods. Research has shown that adding it to chicken feed makes for eggs rich in omega-3s. Feeding chia to chickens enriches their meat with omega-3s; fed to cattle chia enriches milk with omega-3s. Chia can also be added to baby foods, baked goods, nutrition bars, yogurt, and many other foods. Look for Chia, if it already isn’t, to become the new star of the organic and natural foods industry... and with good reason.