What if you could get a good amount of nutrition and feel satisfied all from a tiny seed?
Most of us remember that jingle advertising the terracotta planters in the shape of pets. Once you soaked the seeds and slathered the gooey mixture on the planter, it sprouted fuzzy greens in a few days.
Turns out those black seeds are full of nutrients.
"They are an amazing tiny seed and really inexpensive, and a little goes a long way," says Andrea McNinch, 37, owner of Healing Yourself Institute and Regeneration Raw in Royal Oak, Mich.
McNinch has been using chia for at least seven years and says the seeds have "two times the potassium as bananas and three times the reported antioxidants that blueberries have."
Chia seeds are often compared to flaxseeds because they have similar nutritional profiles. But the main difference is that chia seeds don't need to be ground the way flaxseeds do. Chia also has a longer shelf life and does not go rancid like flax does.
From a culinary perspective, McNinch says, chia acts as "a binder, thickens and emulsifies things."
"Adding in chia bulks up your food without the calories and fat and without diminishing the flavor," she says. "You can add chia to anything."
Raw and sprinkled on foods or soaked in water to create a gelatinous thickener, chia seeds are a source of protein, omega-3 fatty acids and fiber.
Food companies also are getting into chia. Global product launches of foods containing chia were up 78 percent in 2012, according to research firm Mintel. Dole Nutrition Plus launched a line of whole and milled chia and products containing chia.
Often cited as an authority on chia, Wayne Coates is an agricultural engineer and professor emeritus at the University of Arizona. He wrote "Chia: The Complete Guide to the Ultimate Superfood," published last spring. The book discusses the history of chia and its health benefits and includes plenty of recipes.
"It's not a supplement and is a food in the FDA's eyes," says Coates. "Which means you can consume as much as you like."
Coates does urge caution when choosing chia seeds.
"Chia is only black or white," Coates says. "If there is brown -- it is not good, and it can mean the seeds are immature."
Chia, also known as Salvia hispanica, comes from a flowering plant native to Mexico and Central America and also grown in Australia. Here are some things you might not know:
- Chia is a member of the mint family.
- Chia seeds are mainly black, but you can buy white ones.
- Aztec and Mayan cultures "relied on it to keep their civilization healthy," Coates writes in "Chia: The Complete Guide to the Ultimate Superfood." In fact, the name chia means "strength" in Mayan.
- Chia seeds are sold at health-food stores and some grocery stores. Prices vary.
How to use chia
Here are some suggestions for using raw chia seeds (source: Free Press research and "Chia: The Complete Guide to the Ultimate Superfood" by Wayne Coates):
- Sprinkle over yogurt, oatmeal and cereals.
- Stir into drinks and smoothies.
- Toss in mixed greens, rice, pasta or potato salads.
- Add to muffin and cookie recipes.
- Make a pudding, stirring the seeds into almond milk (or other dairy, rice or coconut milk).
- In a clean coffee grinder, grind the seeds into a coarse flour (often called milled chia) and use it in baked goods.
To make chia gel: Soak about 2 tablespoons of seeds in 1 cup cool water. The seeds will swell and the mixture will become gelatinous. You can thin the gel if it's too thick. Add the gel to water and drink as is.
Use the gelatinous mixture as an egg replacer in some recipes. You may need to adjust the other liquids in the recipe.
Use it as a thickening agent in salad dressing and some sauces and soups.
Chia Rice Salad
Serves 6. Prep time: 15 minutes. Total 15 minutes. You can use any variety of vegetables in this salad. From "Chia: The Complete Guide to the Ultimate Superfood" by Wayne Coates (Sterling Publishing, $17.95).
1/2 cup chia gel (see note)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 to 2 cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary or oregano leaves, minced
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 cups cooked brown rice (long grain, basmati or short grain)
1 small zucchini, julienned
1 medium tomato, seeded and chopped
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
COMBINE in a small bowl chia gel, oil, lemon, garlic, salt, herbs and cayenne. Whisk until well-blended. (You can also put ingredients into a tightly closed jar and shake vigorously to mix.)
COMBINE in a large bowl the rice, vegetables and Parmesan cheese, if using. Pour the dressing over the rice mixture, combining gently and thoroughly.
Cook's note: To make chia gel, pour 1 cup cool water into a sealable plastic or glass container. Slowly pour 1 3/4 tablespoons chia seeds into water while briskly mixing with wire whisk. Wait 3 or 4 minutes, then whisk again. Let the mixture stand about 10 minutes before whisking again. Store this mixture in the refrigerator up to 1 week.
Nutrition information: Per serving: 189 calories (32 percent from fat), 7 grams fat (1 gram saturated fat), 28 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams protein, 227 milligrams sodium, 2 milligrams cholesterol, 3 grams fiber.
Chia Seed Muffins
Makes 12 muffins. Prep time: 10 minutes. Total time: 35 minutes. These make a generous-size muffin. You also can make them in a mini muffin pan. Recipe from "Chia: The Complete Guide to the Ultimate Superfood" by Wayne Coates (Sterling Publishing, $17.95).