Most of us have had the dubious pleasure of receiving a Chia Pet as a “gift” at one time or another. These odd-looking clay figurines grew miraculous thick, green, curly “hair” from hundreds of tiny chia seeds when the clay had been moistened for several days.
The seeds stayed moist and sprouted quickly, in large part due to their hydrophilic nature. Chia seeds can absorb and retain up to 27 times their weight in water.
For the majority of gift recipients, the fun died quickly, as did the Chia Pet’s hair. There seemed to be no point in trying to maintain the green locks beyond a few days. However, an expanding interest in chia seeds just may have us all trying to grow Chia Pets.
Today’s market for the nutritious chia seed would probably come as absolutely no surprise to the ancient peoples of southern Mexico and Central America. Civilizations such as those of the Aztec and Mayan Indians grew chia as a dietary staple.
Unless otherwise specified, the term “chia” usually refers to the chia species Salvia hispanica.1 S. hispanica is a rapidly growing biennial plant well-suited to arid climates and poor, sandy soil.1 Growing to a height of about 36 inches, the plant flowers in long clusters of deep blue and purple. The tiny seeds measure no more than 2 mm and are usually brown or black.
One chia plant can produce thousands of seeds. These seeds are composed of up to 40% oil, with the remaining structure high in protein and fiber. In today’s use of chia, it is the oil that is of particular interest.
Nutritionally, chia seed oil is more than 60% alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).2 This makes chia oil one of the highest in composition of this rich omega-3 fatty acid among all oil-bearing seeds. Research involving both chia seeds and chia oil verified that plasma ALA levels increased up to 91% at 2.5 hours postingestion and stayed elevated for nearly 24 hours.3
The role of omega-3 fatty acids in human health has been debated for many years. Even though the necessity of these compounds for health and well-being has never been disputed, the optimal recommended amount in daily foods and supplements is not as clear.
Unlike some other oil-bearing seeds, chia seeds do not require grinding for their oils to be released.4 This characteristic makes them a more appealing ingredient in health-food snacks and cereals. A quarter-cup of chia seeds contains approximately 8mg of iron and 10g of fiber.
Chia seeds are being studied as a weight-modifying food. In one study of 62 overweight women (BMI ≥25), the participants were randomized to consume either 25g/day of chia seeds or placebo for a period of 10 weeks.5 Although plasma ALA levels increased significantly in the chia-seed group, these individuals had no statistically significant weight loss or change in body-fat percentage.
This article originally appeared on Clinical Advisor