Chia, the nutritionists' new pet

Besides growing grassy clay critters, some chia seeds are supergrains, rich in antioxidants, omega-3's, calcium and fiber.

Posted: April 10, 2008

Chia seeds are best known for providing the fast-growing greenery on little clay "pets," but it's time to start thinking of them as a supergrain.

Chia reportedly contains more omega-3 fatty acids than flaxseed, more fiber than bran, and more protein than soy.

One 3.5-ounce serving (about one-fourth of a cup) of Salba - the variety of chia used in a new study published in the November issue of Diabetes Care - gives you as much calcium as three cups of milk, has as much omega-3 fatty acids as 28 ounces of salmon, and is higher in antioxidants than blueberries, says Vladimir Vuksan, the University of Toronto researcher who led the study.

He found that supplementing conventional diabetes therapy with Salba significantly reduced cardiovascular risk factors in people with well-controlled diabetes.

"The results were lower blood pressure, reduced low-grade inflammation, and also it made blood thinner," Vuksan says. "There are not many studies in the literature showing this kind of results from a natural grain. It was rather spectacular."

Vuksan says he can't vouch for all chia, but Salba, a variety developed through selective breeding so its nutrients are standardized for scientific studies, is very high in fiber and has "a lot of nutrients that we have learned over the years have healthy properties, including calcium, iron, Vitamin C and magnesium."

Common chia seeds collected randomly from fields in Mexico have all the same nutrients but not in the same proportions, and have not been studied, he said.

Chia seeds were a basic food of the ancient Aztecs and Mayans, and legend has it that a handful could sustain a warrior for a full day.

The grain is harvested from Salvia hispanica, a member of the mint family that grows in southern Mexico and South America.

Mehmet Oz offered Oprah Winfrey some of his pumpkin-chia seed muffins on her show recently and told her, "Chia is as chock-full of fiber as other whole grains, but it packs in even more vitamins and minerals. . . . more magnesium than about 10 of those heads of broccoli."

Nutrition guru Andrew Weil says these tiny seeds are a better source of omega-3 fatty acids than flaxseed, a longtime favorite of his.

"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," Weil writes in his online library.

He predicts you will begin to see chia being added to more and more commercial products, such as prepared baby foods, nutrition bars, and baked goods.

Salba Smart Natural Products, a company in Denver, has already developed a line of foods, including salsa, chips, tortillas and pretzels, made from ground Salba.

While these products are not yet widely available, Rally Ralston, managing partner of the company, says to expect them in Whole Foods stores within about 30 days.

Meanwhile, some of the products are available through amazon.com.

Five reasons we like chia seeds

They have a nice little crunch and very mild, nutlike flavor.

It doesn't take much - 30 grams or 1/8 cup is considered a serving.

You don't need to grind them up (like flaxseed) to release their oil before you sprinkle them on cereal or salad.

You can grind them up and mix them in to replace some of the flour in muffins and other baked goods.

Sources say they last for years without losing their nutritional value or fresh flavor.

Where to get them

Look for chia seeds at health-food stores including Essene, 719 S. Fourth St. (at the corner of Fourth and Monroe Streets); 215-922-1146. An 8-ounce bag there is $6.29. They are also available online.

You can buy Salba online for about $25.95 per pound. For more information, go to www.salbausa.com or www.salbasmart.com.

Salba Smart tortilla chips in packs of 12 bags are available at www.amazon.com. Search for "Salba Smart."

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