Chia is crop that is produced from the Salvia Hispanica plant, a member of the mint family, and is cultivated for its edible seeds. Also known as Hispanic sage, Chia seeds are typically black or white in color and have a strong resemblance to poppy seeds. Chia is native to the tropical and sub-tropical valleys of Central and South America, namely in the countries of Mexico, Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador and Guatemala. Chia seeds are considered a “super-crop” with health benefits similar to flaxseeds but with the advantage of a much longer shelf life. The seeds offer both a crunchy texture and a very mild nutty flavor which is perfect for mixing into a wide variety of dishes to enhance the overall nutritional profile.
It is thought that humans have been using Chia since approximately 3500 BC with Chia seeds having originated in the central valley of Mexico and then spread through the broader Central and South American regions. Research suggests that Chia seeds were first produced by the Aztec and Mayan civilizations during the pre-Columbian era and were considered to be one of the five major food crops by each civilization, on par with items such as beans or squash. In fact, Chia seeds were so culturally important that they were even used as a form of currency within the Aztec civilization and warriors would carry chia seeds to fuel their sometimes week long conquests because chia seeds pack a full nutritional profile. With the arrival of Spanish conquers in the early 1500s, Chia was suppressed from the Aztec and Mayan civilizations and nearly went extinct. In fact, had it not been for its overall cultural importance and vast health benefits the crop may not exist today. For a more detailed history, see our blogpost A History of Chia Seeds.
Chia is an annual herb which has been specified as a specialty crop by the US Department of Agriculture. The Salvia Hispanica plant, which produces chia seeds, grows to approximately 3 feet in height. It has opposite serrated leaves measuring at between 1.5 and 3 inches long and 1 to 2 inches wide and produces clusters of small blue, purple, or white flowers at the ends of each branch. Chia is a versatile and low-maintenance crop that thrives in moderately fertile soils. Because of its photosensitivity, Chia is a winter crop and is harvested at the end of the winter months. Chia requires a certain amount of nighttime coupled with a certain amount of light to bloom, summer nights do not provide enough hours of darkness and thus the plants never bloom.
Nutrition & Health Benefits
Chia is widely considered a Superfood based on the wealth of nutritional benefits it delivers to those who incorporate it into their daily diets. Some of the main nutritional benefits of Chia include:
* Chia seeds are loaded with antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, calcium and fiber, and contain both anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties.
* Based on Chia’s high fiber content, chia seeds help slow digestion and the rise in blood sugar in order to make a person feel full for a longer period of time. They have also been shown to absorb liquid, which helps to make a person feel more satisfied.
* Chia is an extremely high source of antioxidants, and is comparable to blueberries in that regard.
* Chia has more fiber, especially soluble fiber, than both flax seeds and hemp seeds.
* Chia seeds have a higher concentration of Omega-3 fatty acids than flax seeds which helps to balance the immune system, decrease inflammation, and reduce blood pressure.
Uses & Recipes
Today, Chia is sold individually and can also be found in an increased number of products and dishes throughout the world. In fact, Chia can be found in many of your favorite products including crackers, cereal bars, and fitness products. It is also frequently added to dishes such as smoothies, yogurt, cereal, salads, and a wide variety of baked goods to enhance the nutritional value.
For more recipes, please visit the Beyond the Equator Recipe Page.
* According to Christopher McDougall’s book “Born to Run”, the Tarahumara Native American people of Northwestern Mexico, known as some of the world’s best long distance runners, use a traditional Chia based drink known as ‘iskiate’ as a pre-run energy supplement.
* Chia seeds initially became well known in the United States through their use in the Chia Pet product line which was a smash hit in the early 1980s.
* According to the American Dietetic Association, a person needs 20 to 35 grams of fiber each day, but the average person only gets between 12 to 15 grams. Chia seeds, with roughly ten grams in two tablespoons, contain 42% of the recommended daily dose of fiber in each serving. In fact, a serving of fruit with Chia seeds will have approximately three times the fiber of Kellogg's Raisin Bran.