Ch-ch-ch-chia! Sound familiar? Anyone who grew up in the '80s or '90s surely remembers those tacky, animal-shaped dust collectors, sold strictly on informercials, that grew chia sprouts to look like animal fur. Would you be surprised to hear those same seeds, sometimes referred to as Salvia hispanica L, contain the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acid found in nature, are a complete source of protein and have the power to stabilize blood sugar, and lower cholesterol and blood pressure? All that and more, in one tiny seed.
According to holistic nutritionist Joy McCarthy, chia also lowers insulin (which, in turn, combats belly fat), contains tryptophan to help boost mood and ward off cancer, and contains more fiber than wheat bran -- but since chia is gluten free, it won't cause the bloating that wheat products sometimes do.
This ancient grain, grown in both South America and Mexico, was used heavily by the Aztecs and is part of the mint family, reports BBC News. Chia has been gaining popularity in North America for the past several years, with the U.S. alone introducing 21 new products featuring chia in 2011 and 13 so far in 2012.
In the U.K., however, the seed is not yet permitted for sale as anything other than an ingredient for bread. That will be changing soon though. According to BBC News, the UK's Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes plans to add chia to its safe list, allowing it to be sold on its own and in various food products.
As is the case with many newly introduced health foods, the people who are already in chia's corner have some pretty hefty claims. But is this little seed really all it's cracked up to be?
In Christopher McDougall's book Born to Run, chia is touted as a long-distance runner's ideal fuel source: "In terms of nutritional content, a tablespoon of chia is like a smoothie made from salmon, spinach and human growth hormone," writes McDougall. "If you had to pick just one desert-island food, you couldn't do much better than chia, at least if you were interested in building muscle, lowering cholesterol, and reducing your risk of heart disease," he continues. "After a few months on the chia diet, you could probably swim home."
But according to David Nieman, director of Human Performance Labs at Appalachian State University, who has done in-depth research on chia's health benefits, "After 10 to 12 weeks, we don't see anything happening to disease risk factors in free-living people," he tells BBC News.
"If you put it in cereal, yogurt or juice, you are giving yourself a nutritional boost," says Nieman. "You're definitely adding up to your mineral, fibre, protein and omega-3 intake, but will it magically cure disease or take away risk factors? It's almost like a cult following for some of these chia people, they claim everything under the sun."
Dr. Catherin Ulbricht, founder of the Natural Standard Research Collaboration, tells BBC News that it's important not to view chia, or any one thing, as a cure-all. "Anything that can have an action in your body can also have a reaction," she says.
As a guideline, McCarthy, who emphasizes balance and variety in diet, says she incorporates chia into her meal plan several times per week.
Unlike flax, the even more popular member of the seed family, chia doesn't need to be ground for you to reap all of its benefits, says McCarthy. Our stomach acids are able to easily break down the seed, so you can grind it in a coffee grinder if you prefer, but it's not necessary. And when you're looking for it in the store, McCarthy recommends steering clear of the overpriced Salba brand: "Unless Salba can convince me why their chia is the best, I'm suggesting that you buy a no-namer brand and save yourself some bucks," she says.
Among the endless ways to add these super-seeds into your diet, sprinkling them into baked goods and yogurt, adding them to smoothies and spreading them onto your peanut butter toast in the morning are probably the most common.
Do you plan to add chia seeds to your diet? If so, will you bother to grind them up for extra nutritional benefit?
If chia seeds aren't your thing, what about dark leafy greens? Check out the video below on the health benefits of greens.