Aztecs, Incans and Mayans often used it for its medicinal force and as a major source of energy. The word “chia” meant “strength” to the Mayans, and messengers would often carry a pouch of the tiny brown and black seeds along with them on extended journeys. Today, when most people hear the word chia, the first thing that comes to mind are the tabletop, potted plants in the likeness of a dog, Homer Simpson and even President Barack Obama, but the little seeds sprout more than pretty flowers.
Smaller than—and often compared to—the flax seed, chia is filled with two times more protein than most grains, five times more calcium than milk and one of the highest levels of omega 3 and 6 fatty acids. Let’s not forget it’s full of soluble fiber, potassium and antioxidants.
“It’s just like flax seed,” says Diana Allen, MS, CNS, a clinical nutritionist and author of Chia Seed. “Nobody ever used to eat them, and now everybody knows what flax seeds are. Flax seed was never used as a food, and chia was consumed for centuries in Central America. It’s very high in calcium. It’s high in protein, fiber and it also contains antioxidants which is a great advantage over flax seeds.”
When cooking, chia seeds go a long way. The seeds are hydrophilic or highly gelatinous (and absorb up to 14 times their weight in water). Chia seeds thicken foods and add more substance to any dish without all the extra calories. “It’s very bland and mild,” says Allen. “If you chew it up in your mouth, it gets really slippery and coats the tongue. It doesn’t have any flavor, which is nice, because it doesn’t influence the taste of other foods. You just add it like a supplement.”
Chia seeds are found in most health food stores in little bags or canisters. Of course, you can always opt for the smaller, topiary version if you’re not interested in the health benefits, but why would you?
Here are some simple ways to cook with chia:
Great absorbers of water, chia seeds are a good base to thicken up a bowl of oatmeal. Just one tablespoon of seeds can add a nice consistency, fullness and some added fiber to your morning cereal.
Al “Chia” Fresca
Refreshing and hydrating, the Mexicans have brewed their own version of lemonade, chia fresca, for centuries. Simply add one tablespoon of chia seed to one 8 oz. glass of water and one teaspoon of agave nectar, or stevia, to sweeten. Let the beverage sit for 10 to 15 minutes or until the seeds completely swell and absorb the liquid. Chia fresca is a great hydrator, because it helps the body hold water.
More water and less fruit make the same healthy smoothie? Yes, as long as chia seeds are added to the blend. The seeds work as a food extender and still pack in all the omegas, fiber, protein and antioxidants of a full-berry filled smoothie. “It helps your food go further, because you can use less of the food,” says Allen. “Just add water and chia, and it makes more.”
Sprinkle chia seeds on top of your favorite salad. Bland and tasteless, you’ll only savor the greens and never have an overpowering aftertaste of chia. Add some seeds to granola mix and, if ground, chia can be used in powder form when baking, in soups and anything that needs consistency.