Chia seeds are harvested from the Salvia hispanica plant, a member of the mint family that appears to have originated in Central America. The seeds are small, about one millimeter in diameter, and they range from brown to gray in color. Chia seeds were a common component of the diets of the ancient Aztecs.
Most of the chia seeds sold in stores and online come from salvia hispanica, but the roots of another variety, Salvia columbariae, were used as medicine by native Americans who lived in the southwestern United States. A third relative is called Salvia militorrhiza, or danshen. The roots of this particular variety of salvia are used in Chinese medicine.
Chia seeds are promoted as a weight-loss aid and are believed to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, probably because of the fiber and omega-3 fatty acid content. But so far, there hasn't been much clinical research (studies involving people) available, since most research has been done in labs on animals.
One small, 2007 clinical study found some reduction of cardiovascular disease risk factors in people with diabetes. But another study, published in 2009, found that neither chia seeds nor a placebo resulted in any weight loss or changes in cardiovascular risk factors in the overweight study participants.
If chia seeds do have any special health benefits, it's probably due to the high fiber content that may slow down the absorption of sugars through the intestinal walls and into the blood, or at least that what the authors of the 2007 study concluded. Of course, this is also the case with any dietary type of whole grain.
Nutrition Information for Chia SeedsIn addition to their high-fiber content, chia seeds are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, plus a few vitamins and minerals. Here are the nutrition highlights for 1 ounce of chia seeds:
- Calories - 138
- Fiber - 9.8 grams
- Total Fat - 8.71 grams
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids (Alpha Linolenic Acid) - 5.1 grams
- Monounsaturated Fatty Acids - 0.66 grams
- Saturated Fatty Acids - 0.94 grams
- Calcium - 179 milligrams
- Magnesium - 95 milligrams
- Iron - 2.19 milligrams
- Zinc - 1.30 milligrams
- Niacin - 2.5 milligrams
- Folate - 14 micrograms
- Vitamin A - 15 International Units
Chia seeds can be part of a healthy diet, but there isn't enough evidence to use them to treat or prevent any health conditions. If that's your goal, be sure to speak with your healthcare provider before taking chia seeds or any nutritional supplement. You can buy whole chia seeds and add them to soups, salads and beverages. Chia flour can be used as a substitute for wheat flour. You can also find chia in dietary supplement form.
More about chia seeds:
National Standard Research Collaboration. "Chia (Salvia hispanica) Bottom Line Monograph." Accessed March 1st, 2012. http://naturalstandard.com.
Nieman DC, Cayea EJ, Austin MD, Henson DA, McAnulty SR, Jin F. "Chia seed does not promote weight loss or alter disease risk factors in overweight adults." Nutr Res. 2009 Jun;29(6):414-8.
United States Department of Agriculture National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference Release 24. "Nutrient data for 12006, Seeds, chia seeds, dried." Accessed March 2, 2012. http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/3673.
Vuksan V, Jenkins AL, Dias AG, Lee AS, Jovanovski E, Rogovik AL, Hanna A. "Reduction in postprandial glucose excursion and prolongation of satiety: possible explanation of the long-term effects of whole grain Salba (Salvia Hispanica L.)." Eur J Clin Nutr. 2010 Apr;64(4):436-8.
Vuksan V, Whitham D, Sievenpiper JL, Jenkins AL, Rogovik AL, Bazinet RP, Vidgen E, Hanna A. "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." Diabetes Care. 2007 Nov;30(11):2804-10. Epub 2007 Aug 8.