You might think that everyone who has diabetes would know about a seed that is superior to other plant and marine sources of essential omega-3 oils. It is also high in antioxidants and fiber. Besides that, it is high in protein and lipids, is low in sodium, and has fewer net carbs than most other grains.
But we have more misinformation about it than we have knowledge.
The seed is called chia (Salvia hispanica) and is a member of the mint family. It originated in Mexico’s central valley.
Before the Spanish conquest, chia was a big part of the Aztec and Mayan diets and was the basic survival ration of Aztec warriors. But the conquerors came close to wiping out chia. Maybe that was because of the Aztec custom of cutting images of gods made from chia dough into pieces and eating them after their religious ceremonies. That was too close for comfort to the practices of the conquering religion.
Over the past few decades, commercial production has resumed in Latin America. Much of the credit for this needs to go to Wayne Coates, Ph.D., who retired just two months ago as a research professor in the Office of Arid Lands Studies at the University of Arizona, Tucson. Together with Richardo Ayerza Jr., Dr. Coates wrote the definitive book on the subject, Chia: Rediscovering a Forgotten Crop of the Aztecs (The University of Arizona Press, 2005).
Dr. Wayne Coates (image used by permission)
Their work led to the commercial cultivation of chia in Peru.
Chia is 16 percent protein, 31 percent fat, and 44 percent carbohydrate of which 38 percent is fiber. Most of its fat is the essential omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid or ALA, according to the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 20 (2007).
Exactly how much of chia’s fiber is insoluble and soluble is hard to pin down. But about three-fourths is insoluble and one-fourth soluble. Still, chia’s soluble fiber has a much higher viscosity than other dietary fibers such as beta-glucan and guar. This means that it has significantly increased intestinal transit time, delayed gastric emptying, and a slower rate of glucose absorption.
For all its power chia is a remarkably mild tasting seed. I add it to everything from salad to yogurt to eggs and ground bison. I enjoy its nutlike flavor and sometimes eat a handful of whole seeds straight from the container. Chia is a tasty, interesting, and healthful addition to my diet.
But for such a little-known food we can find a remarkable amount of stuff on the Internet that just isn’t true. Dr. Coates helped guide me through this morass.
I don’t have any interest in the recipes for chia that I found in the book by James F. Sheer, The Magic of Chia (Berkeley, California, Frog Ltd., 2001). But essentially all of those recipes call for soaking the chia in a glass of water to form a gel. Is that really necessary?
It’s not, Dr. Coates replied. “They were believers in soaking, but all that does is bring out the soluble fiber. It doesn’t do anything more magical than that. There is no documented reason to make a gel to use it. I personally just put it on my salad every night and eat it that way.”
I also wondered if we might need to grind chia seeds, since flax seeds require grinding. Does grinding chia make it more bioavailable?
“Not really,” Dr. Coates replied. With flax you have to grind it, because it has a hard seed coat. Chia doesn’t, so you don’t need to grind it.
I persisted. It seems to me that the chia is more palatable when I grind it. So is there any reason not to?
“No, there is definitely no reason not to, except for the hassle of doing it,” he answered. “Grinding will not hurt anything, and if in fact you do grind it, the nice thing is that it has natural anti-oxidants so it won’t go rancid like flax.”
What about cooking? I broiled ground chia on my bison burger last night. Does cooking destroy anything of the chia?
Again, that is not really a problem, Dr. Coates replied. “Whether ground or whole there is no detrimental effects. Of course, the higher the heat there will be some destruction, but not a lot. I think it is slightly better to add it at the table.
“Now, if you cook with chia oil, it isn’t stable, because the antioxidants are in the seed and the seed coat,” he says. So don’t use chia oil for cooking, he adds, just as you wouldn’t use flax oil for cooking, because both of them will oxidize.
Then, I asked Dr. Coates what his take on Salba was. A company in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, has begun to promote it heavily.
I told him that I just ran across an article by Vladmir Vuksan and his associates about Salba. The article is “Supplementation of Conventional Therapy With the Novel Grain Salba (Salvia hispanica L.) Improves Major and Emerging Cardiovascular Risk Factors in Type 2 Diabetes: Results of a randomized controlled trial,” in Diabetes Care, November 2007, pp. 2804-2810.
“It’s a joke,” Dr. Coates replied forcefully. “Salba is just the white chia.”
Then, what about organic chia? I told him that I ran across a source of chia that purports to be certified organic.
Dr. Coates replied point blank, “There is no certified organic chia. That is another falsehood. But the chia is never sprayed with pesticides because insects never bother it. So there are never any chemicals on the outside of the seed. It is harvested with combines mechanically and it is mechanically cleaned. We don’t irradiate it; we don’t do anything to it. It is natural.”
Then, I said that I heard that you can take too much fish oil and I wondered if you could take too much chia.
“You can OD on fish oil and algae oil,” Dr. Coates replied. But there are no know restrictions or limitations on chia. You can eat a cup a day. You cannot OD on ALA. Your body takes the ALA and converts it to fish oil.”
But doesn’t ALA convert to fish oil with less bioavailability than the fish oil itself?
“There is a big argument about how much ALA gets converted,” Dr. Coates replied. “Your body is going to convert what you need rather than converting extra. So you are going to convert differently from what I am going to convert. That’s why nothing has come out about what percentage is converted.”
This is clear enough now for me. I will continue eating at least three or four teaspoons of chia every day. And most of the time I will eat the little seeds whole. I will stick with the more common and much less expensive black seeds. I will cut back a little on my fish oil and increase the number of chia seeds I eat every day.
This article is based on an earlier version of my article published by HealthCentral.