Dynamite comes in small packages. Apparently, so does nutrition. Within the tiny seeds of the Salvia hispanica plant is an enormous world of nutrition, which includes essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, protein and fiber. These plants, belonging to the mint family, produce chia and a trademarked Salvia hispanica L. form (Salba, Sahi Alba 911 and 912 varieties of Salvia hispanica L.). These seeds originate from South and Central America and have been used in a variety of applications for thousands of years. The Aztecs and Maya used them as a staple food to provide energy and endurance. Today, this ancient wisdom is making a comeback in the natural foods industry with vigorous force.
The seeds come in several varieties, the most common of which are white and dark seeds. Industry has not come to a consensus as to whether or not there is any nutritional difference between the two, despite sharing the same nomenclature. However, with nutritional values being drained from so many crops today because of modern agricultural practices, it is amazing to find a food that is not only functional, but also one that packs such an explosive nutritional punch.
This remarkable supplement is extremely versatile in terms of delivery and application. In addition to being related to the same seed famously used to create lovable Chia Pets, it can be eaten in whole seed form, ground to make meal (sometimes referred to as pinole), taken as oil or consumed in gel-capsule form. When the seeds are soaked in water, a gel is produced that can be mixed into beverages for a healthy and energizing boost, or added to a variety of recipes. The recommended dose of the supplement is about two tablespoons a day for an adult and up to one tablespoon for children, though amounts can change depending on the supplement (1).
Consumers today are more aware than ever before of the benefits of omega-3 essential fatty acids, some of which include heart health, reduced inflammation, improved mental health, blood pressure, skin, hair and nails. The typical unbalanced American diet does not provide an adequate amount or balance of omega-3s and consumers are in search of novel and convenient ways to get their daily recommended dosage. In today’s market there are several readily available sources of fatty acids, the most common of which are fish oils, flaxseed, hemp, marine algae and chia/Salvia hispanica L.
Chia and Salvia hispanica L. seeds possess the highest combined alpha-linolenic (ALA) and linoleic acid (LA) percentage (82.3%) of all crops (2). Although ALA and LA differ from the EPA and DHA found in marine sources, they are a separate but great way to get essential fatty acids. These two fatty acids are dietary essential, meaning they can’t be made within the body, making this supplement a very valuable resource. Moreover, the seeds offer a well-balanced and favorable 3:2 ratio of omega-3 to omega-6, addressing the desperate need within American diets for this balanced to be restored.
Chia and Salvia hispanica L. are high in antioxidants helping to avoid rancidity common in other grains. This property extends shelf lives to two years, depending on the product. A key reason why many products containing omega-3s become rancid so quickly is lipid oxidation, which can produce an off-flavor taste. Caffeic acid and chlorogenic acid, which are both contained in the seeds, have been shown to exhibit strong free radical and superoxide scavenging activity to inhibit lipid peroxidation (2) offering a lengthy shelf life in comparison to EPA and DHA sources of omega-3s.
Because it causes instability in fatty acids after they are consumed, peroxidation has also been related to cardiovascular diseases, immune system decline, cataracts, cancers and brain dysfunction. To combat this and maintain balance, synthetic antioxidants can be added but there has been suspicion that these products may promote carcinogenicity (2). Chia and Salvia hispanica L. seeds contain a proper amount of natural antioxidants to make oxidation minimal to nonexistent.
Because chia and Salvia hispanica L. do not have the fishy or strong flavor of other sources of omega-3s, those who are not used to eating those flavors on a daily basis have a wonderful option. The taste has been described as neutral or nutty, if anything. Therefore, the grains have the potential to be used in a variety of recipes including smoothies, burgers, salads and desserts. Seeds can be eaten in whole or ground form. Also, they do not have to be ground to become bioavailable, though grinding can widen application possibilities. For example, ground seeds can replace 25% of the flour used in any recipe, and gel can even be used in place of eggs (3). For those concerned about blood pressure, the supplement offers a huge advantage because of its low sodium content. The American Heart Association recommends eating less than 2,400 mg, or one teaspoon, of sodium per day. These seeds contain 1.8, 2.6, 3.5 and 163 times less sodium per 100 grams of an edible portion than do flaxseeds, canned tuna in water, pink salmon and algae, respectively (2). Thus, they can easily be added to recipes without the risk of dramatically increasing sodium levels.
Chia and Salvia hispanica L. seeds are also an excellent source of vitamins and minerals. Calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, iron, zinc and copper are abundant. They contain 13–354 times more calcium, 2–12 times more phosphorus and 1.6–9 times more potassium per 100 grams of edible portion than wheat, rice, barley, oats and corn (2). A single serving of Salvia hispanica L. contains as much vitamin C as seven oranges, as well as naturally occurring folate, B vitamins and vitamin A (1).
Improving Everyday and Athletic Performance
All of these nutritional benefits combine to create unique supplements with the ability to positively influence the entire body’s well-being and health. The high soluble fiber content of chia and Salvia hispanica L. increases intestinal transit time, delays gastric emptying and slows glucose absorption, thereby reducing cholesterol absorption (2). Salvia hispanica L. (Salba) is said to absorb 14 times its weight in water (1), creating bulk and generating a sense of fullness. Chia manufacturers note the grain also promotes satiety. In addition, both varieties contain about 33% fiber and 20% protein, making the seed or defatted meal a well-balanced source of fiber and amino acids (4).
Although the seeds are digested easily, their amazing ability to absorb water and form a gel causes a slow release of carbohydrates and slow conversion of carbs into glucose for energy and to stave off hunger. There is no insulin spike needed to lower blood sugar levels after eating the grains and the water retaining ability of the gel maintains electrolyte balance. This mechanism makes it ideal for those concerned about weight loss/maintenance and supreme for athletes searching for a major endurance booster. In fact, the origins of chia and Salvia hispanica L. for athletic use date back to Native Americans using only chia seeds and water to help them run enormous distances for hunting, trade between tribes and game playing.
The same slow release and conversion mechanism providing weight-control and athletic endurance may also be beneficial for those suffering from type-2 (non-insulin dependent) diabetes and other cardiovascular troubles. Authors of a published study concluded long-term supplementation with trademarked Salvia hispanica L. (Salba) “attenuated a major cardiovascular risk factor (SBP) and emerging factors (hs-CRP and vWF) safely beyond conventional therapy, while maintaining good glycemic and lipid control in people with well-controlled type 2 diabetes” (5). The study followed 20 otherwise healthy diabetic patients for 12 weeks. The research team ground the Salba seeds into flour and baked it into bread, which was served to the study participants. They were also given additional amounts to sprinkle on food at home. Other, more specific benefits of the study included:
• a reduction in after-meal blood glucose and plasma insulin levels,
• a 40% reduction in C-reactive protein, a marker for inflammation,
• lowered systolic blood pressure (10 over 5),
• decreased coagulation by 30% and
• no adverse effects noted on glycemic control or blood lipids.
Because of these effects, patients taking blood-thinners or any other medications should consult their doctor before starting a regimen with this supplement.
Another study determined that rats fed with dietary chia seed prevented the onset of dyslipidaemia and insulin resistance (IR) when added to their sucrose-rich diet (SRD) for three weeks. In addition, “dyslipidaemia and IR in the long-term SRD-fed rats were normalized without changes in insulin aemia when chia seed provided the dietary fat during the last 2 months of the feeding period and dietary chia seed reduced the visceral adiposity present in the SRD rats” (6).
A Special Grain for Special Diets
Marine and fish products are very common sources of allergic reactions thereby limiting sources of omega-3s for many children and adults. A 2003 study found no evidence that chia exhibited any allergic response even for individuals with peanut and tree nut allergies (2). Other benefits for those with special diets are:
• Chia and Salvia hispanica L. seeds are gluten-free, unlike cereal grains, making them ideal for individuals with gluten sensitivity, carbohydrate intolerance, hypoglycemia, Celiac Disease, Crohn’s Disease or for anyone wishing to avoid gluten-containing grains like corn, barley and wheat.
• For children who have trouble meeting their daily requirements of nutrients, a single tablespoon of the neutral-tasting seeds can fill in important nutritional gaps (once the regimen is approved by a healthcare provider).
• It is an excellent vegetarian and vegan source of non-marine proteins and essential fatty acids.
• There has been some investigation about lactose intolerant patients who were able to drink milk again without side effects after consuming the grains.
The Past, Present and Future
About 500 years ago, demand for the seeds was severely diminished due to religious persecution in Central America and until a revival in health food stores in the 1960s, were almost unheard of outside of traditional origins. However, with discoveries about the benefits of balanced healthy fats, the seeds have spread out of Mexico and are a valued health commodity again.
Today, varieties of Salvia hispanica L. can be found in human and animal food and supplements. Supplements for household pets are formulated using these grains as a source of omega-3s. They can be added commercially to nutrition bars, baked goods, and so on, as well as to enrich foods by adding it to animal feed, making them an outstanding competitor on the market. For example, chickens fed with the seeds produce eggs with much higher levels of omega-3s.
Some observations indicate insects generally are not attracted to Salvia hispanica L. plants (2), making an ideal crop for organic growing. Typically grown in Central and South America, chia production saw outstanding expansion in Australia in 2008. The Ord Valley in Western Australia grew a little less than 1,000 hectares of chia in 2008, with plans to increase 2009’s production to 1,700 hectares—making up two-thirds of the world’s production (7). Hunter-gatherer humans used to eat more than 100 species of plants, but now we are dependent on about 20, putting extreme pressure on the market. However, the versatility, dense nutrition and agricultural potential of chia and Salvia hispanica L. (Salba) make it increasingly attractive for growers, manufacturers and consumers in the future. WF
1. S. Sellman, “Salba: A Gift from the Ancient Aztecs,” Total Health (29) 1, 2007.
2. R. Ayerza, Jr., and W. Coates, Chia: Rediscovering a Forgotten Crop of the Aztecs (The University of Arizona Press, Tucson, AZ, 2005).
3. “Salba Smart” press release from Salba Smart Natural Products, LLC.
4. “Flax Attack,” WholeFoods Magazine, 31 (2), 18 (2008).
5. V. Vuksan, et al., “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, Aug. 8 2007.
6. “Dietary Chia Seed Rich in Alpha-Linolenic Acid Improves Adiposity and Normalizes Hypertriacylglycerolaemia and Insulin Resistance in Dyslipaemic Rats,” Br. J. Nutr. May 2008.
7. M. Brann, “Chia: The Ord Valley’s New Super Crop,” The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, September 17, 2008, www.abc.net.au/rural/content/2008/s2367335.htm, accessed November 26, 2008.
Published in WholeFoods Magazine, January 2009