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Chia: not just your average seed

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When it comes to recent food trends, it is almost impossible to ignore the increased use and popularity of Salvia hispanica L.

Salvia hispani… what?

Salvia hispanica L. is popularly known as chia seeds. This mint-related plant is leaving its mark on the food industry and is ever so prevalent on the Internet. If you do a quick Google search you will find plenty of recipes using chia seeds, and you are likely see people raving about this gluten-free seed on Pinterest and other social media networks, too.

Chia seeds, which date back to the ancient Aztecs, have shot to the top of the “superfood” lists, creating a craze with consumers. Perhaps it is their versatility that is so appealing. You can use chia seeds to make beverages, desserts, crackers, breading and more.

The seed can be consumed whole or ground, and may be easily added to foods such as yogurts, smoothies, oatmeal and other cereals. A unique property of the seed is its ability to turn gelatinous or gummy when soaked, allowing it to be used as a thickening agent in recipes.

This feature comes in handy when using chia seeds as a substitute for eggs in baking. To use chia seeds instead of eggs, soak one tablespoon of ground chia seeds in three tablespoons of water for five to 10 minutes. This is usually the equivalent of one egg. In a study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, it was found that 25 percent of eggs or oil in a recipe could be replaced with the chia gel without affecting the functional or sensory properties of the result. By using chia seeds instead of oil or eggs, it decreases the caloric and fat content of the final product.

So what are the nutritional claims? Chia seeds are tagged as a good source of fiber, protein, omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants such as quercetin. Antioxidants are substances that help counteract and reduce the effects of free radicals that cause inflammation, damage to cells and worsening of certain diseases.

Chia seeds provide omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the same fatty acid found in flax seeds. Although the impact of ALA on heart health is less clear than that of other types of omega-3s such as the ones found in fatty fish, they are still beneficial.

Another important fact about chia seeds is that they are a complete protein, providing all essential amino acids. This may be beneficial for individuals who choose to live a vegan lifestyle. In comparison to tofu, another commonly used complete protein, chia seeds are much lower in protein when matched for total calories, but contain over 15 times as much fiber, an important component of nutrition that is often lacking in the American diet. It is important to remember, however, that chia seeds are not a “free calorie food,” as they do contain almost 75 calories per one tablespoon.

If you have not tried chia seeds before, what are you waiting for? If you already have a favorite chia-based recipe, let us know in the comments!

By Katelyn Miller, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay dietetic intern under supervision of Julia Salomón, Affinity Health System corporate dietician

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