Chia Seeds: History, Nutrition, and Uses

Chia seeds
Superfood chia seeds are native to Mexico and Central America. photo (c) Westen61 / Getty Images

Mexican chia (Salvia hispanica) is in the mint family, and the green bushy plant can grow up to 4 feet tall. It is native to southern Mexico and Central America. The term chia is said to be derived from the Native Mexican word chian which means “oily” (because of the high oil content of the seeds). The tiny seeds are about one millimeter long and are gray, black, and white when mature (brownish while still immature).

Chia Seeds in History

The Aztecs and Mayans are believed to have used chia seed as a very significant part of their diet, dating back as far as 3500 BC. The ancient Mexicans also used chia seed as a form of currency for trade.

When the Spanish invaded Mexico, and in an effort to break down the Aztec economy and culture, some of the foods that were a large part of native traditions—including products now heralded as “superfoods” such as chia and amaranth—were outlawed. Fortunately for us moderns, these crops have come down to us because they continued to be cultivated clandestinely in remote areas among people who had not assimilated to European ways.

Today, chia is coming back into popularity as science confirms its great nutritional value and cooks prove its versatility. The seed is commercially grown not only in its native Mexico and Central America, but also in Bolivia, Peru, Argentina, Ecuador, and as far away as Australia.

Chia Seeds and Nutrition

There are not too many uses for the leaves of the chia plant; it is the chia seed that packs the nutritional punch. The seeds contain up to 25% omega-3 fatty acids including ALA (alpha-linolenic acid.) They also contain protein and fiber and are considered a near-perfect food source, which explains their “superfood” status.

Just one ounce (28 grams or about 1/6th of a cup) of chia seed contains approximately 4 grams of protein, 9 grams of fat and 11 grams of fiber.

Chia also contains other minerals typically found in similar seeds such as flax. However, because of their level of high anti-oxidant content, chia seeds do not spoil as quickly flax seeds can.

When chia the seeds are soaked, they absorb up to twelve times their weight in liquid and become gelatinous. Once consumed, they can form a gel in your stomach which can slow down digestion of carbohydrates and sugars. The gelled seeds also help keep your electrolytes in balance. The seeds are also thought to help build muscle and are ideal for athletes.

Uses for Chia Seeds

Chia seeds can be used a number of ways. In Mexico, chia seeds are used to make Chia Fresca, which is water or juice with chia seeds in it; this is possibly the easiest way to enjoy chia, and certainly one of the tastiest.

You can also sprinkle a teaspoon of chia seeds into a glass of your favorite agua fresca, juice, or lemon water and let them soak for about ten minutes.

They will become gelatinous and they add a nice texture to your drink.

Chia seeds can be ground up and added to many types of breads, cereals and baked goods to add nutritional value.  They can also be sprouted and used in salads, sandwiches or as a garnish. In some regions, the seeds are sprouted on a decorative clay form that has come to be known in English as a "chia pet."

Puddings, somewhat tapioca-like in consistency, are sometimes made with chia seeds, since they naturally become gelatinous when wet. Spreadable jam-like concoctions are also created when chia is mixed with pureed fruit.

Chia in Pinole

Chia seeds can also be used as an ingredient in pinole, which is a meal or flour made from a particular type of dried maize. It is an important part of diet of the Tarahumara people of the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua (a population known worldwide for its long-distance runners), and is consumed by many other groups of indigenous and mestizo peoples in Mexico and Central and South America. The terms pinol and pinolillo are also used for this product, depending on the region.

To make pinole, the maize is dried and removed from the husk, toasted in hot ash, then ground into a meal. Chia seeds, amaranth, or garbanzo beans can then be added to the ground corn meal, if desired, to raise its nutritional value even more.

Pinole is eaten plain, or water and seasonings are added to create a porridge. Sometimes cacao and spices such as cinnamon and anise are added when pinole is consumed as a hot or cold drink.

Revised by Robin Grose