Chia Seeds: More Than Just a Funny Plant?

What is it about this seed that has made it so wildly popular? These little seeds pack a lot of punch to be so small. They are high in dietary fiber, protein, minerals and antioxidants. They are the highest known plant source of omega-3, an essential fatty acid that our body requires; and since they are not from an animal source it is a good way to obtain this fatty acid without also taking in cholesterol.

Chia seeds come from a plant native to South and Central America, Salvia hispanica. The name chia comes from the Aztec word chian, which means oily. The seeds were once used by Aztec warriors as medicine, treating joint pain and skin conditions. They also used it as a food for themselves and their animals and as a part of their religious ceremonies. There is evidence that the use of chia seeds dates as far back at 3500 B.C.

The seeds were virtually lost for about 500 years but were rediscovered in the 1990’s by Dr. Wayne Coates, a researcher at University of Arizona. Dr. Coates is also known as Mr. Chia. He was working in Argentina, looking for alternative crops for farmers when he and his team came across the chia seed. After testing and researching the seed they discovered its nutritional benefits.

Salvia Hispanica

Salvia hispanica

The Salvia hispanica plant is a member of the mint family and can grow to be more than 10 feet tall. It is grown primarily for its seeds but also produces white or purple flowers. The color of the seed varies from brown, black, gray, white or any combination of these colors. The highest quality seeds are the black or white seeds. A brown color indicates the seeds are immature and have lower nutrient content. Also, if the seeds are harvested before they are mature they will have lower total and omega-3 content.  The ratio of the nutrient composition of the seed changes depending on where it is grown, climate conditions and the nutrients of the soil it is grown in.

According to the USDA’s website, 1 ounce of chia seeds contain 138 kilocalories, 9.8 grams of fiber, 179 milligrams of calcium, 5 grams of omega-3 and almost 5 grams of protein. Since they are so high in fiber, if you decide to add chia seeds to your diet, start gradually. The high fiber content could cause some intestinal discomfort if you aren’t used to it–as it would be the case with any form of fiber.

Chia seeds come in two forms, whole or milled. Unlike flaxseed, chia seeds do not have to be ground in order for the nutrients to be maximally absorbed. Chia and flax seed have similar nutritional profiles but chia seeds have a longer shelf life and don’t turn rancid like flax seed can.

Whole chia seeds can be added directly to salads, cereals or anything you would like. If they are placed in water they will form a gel which also can be mixed into foods like smoothies, oatmeal and yogurt.

To make chia gel, whisk together 2 tablespoons chia seeds and 1 cup liquid in a bowl. Allow to sit for 10 minutes then whisk again. It is ready for use right away.

If a gel is made and not used all at once it should be refrigerated and will stay good for one to two weeks. Since it thickens foods, the gel can make you feel full more quickly. It has a very bland taste and doesn’t influence the taste of other foods.  Chia gel can be used to replace eggs or butter in baking recipes (one tablespoon of gel replaces one egg). You can also replace half the butter in a baking recipe with an equal portion of gel.

Finally, how much of chia seeds should you eat? The Food and Drug Administration classifies chia seeds as a food, not a supplement, so there isn’t a limit or recommendation on how much to eat. Just make sure that it fits as part of your healthy meal plan. The seeds are recognized as safe but further research does need to be done to confirm the claims of their ability to lower cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure and promote weight loss. The research studies that have been done are mostly on animals or humans with a small number of participants.

Written by: Heather Pratt, St. Louis University Dietetic Intern


Ali, N., Swee Keong, Y., Wan Yong, H., Boon Kee, B., Sheau Wei, T., & Soon Guan, T. (2012). The Promising Future of Chia, Salvia hispanica S. Journal of Biomedicine & Biotechnology, 2012, 1-9. doi: 10.1155/2012/171956.

USDA Nutrient Database


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