Chia

Chia is now a trendy "functional food," but its history stretches back over 5,000 years. Learn more about chia's benefits in the past and modern day.

Quick Facts
General Information
  • Common name(s)Chia, Mexican chia, chia pet, salba
  • Scientific nameSalvia hispanica
  • Plant typeHerb
  • Main producer(s)Mexico
  • Main Economic UseCulinary
Chia

Hailing from the temperate climates of Mexico and northern Central America, chia has been scientifically dated as being present in its native regions as far back as 3500 BCE. By 2600 BCE, it was already an established food crop for indigenous civilizations. Its common name comes from the Nahuatl word chian, meaning "oily."

Chia Medicinal Properties

Quick Facts (Medicinal Properties)
  • Medicinal actionCardioprotective, Hypoglycemic
  • Key constituentsOmega-3 fatty acids, flavonoids, phenols
  • Ways to useCapsules, Powder, Essential oil
  • Medicinal rating(3) Reasonably useful plant
  • Safety rankingSafety undetermined
Chia Medicinal Properties

Health Benefits of Chia

Little research has been conducted into chia to support its uses. Nevertheless, due to reports of its rich nutrient content and antioxidant action, the following medicinal uses are being examined:

  • Reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. This is because of its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

  • Lowering blood pressure. Chia seeds are thought to be able to lower systolic blood pressure over time.

  • Managing blood glucose levels. This could assist in the treatment of diabetes.

How It Works

The major supporting compounds in chia are omega-3 fatty acids, phenols, and flavonoids, all with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

Many studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids possess potent immunomodulatory activities, which are able to inhibit interleukin 1 (IL-1), a proinflammatory cytokine, thus contributing to lower the risk of coronary heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, major depression, and other autoimmune conditions, such as arthritis, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, psoriasis, lupus erythematosus, multiple sclerosis, and migraine headaches.

The exact mechanism behind the hypoglycemic properties of chia is yet to be fully explained; however, studies suggest that the soluble fiber and antioxidants contained in the seeds reduce postprandial glycemia and blood pressure, helping with the prevention and treatment of metabolic diseases, such as hypertension, high cholesterol, and diabetes.

Hypotensive properties are also present in saffron and goji berry, whereas carambola and graviola can provide hypoglycemic benefits.

Chia Side Effects

Chia is generally regarded as safe for consumption by people who are not allergic to it. However, it is recommended that chia consumption not exceed 48 grams a day to avoid adverse effects.

Chia Nutrition

Chia Nutrition

Chia seeds are bursting with nutritional value. In addition to be an excellent source of minerals, mainly manganese, necessary for the metabolism of carbohydrates, as well as for promoting calcium absorption and regulating blood sugar levels; selenium, which protects the integrity of the cells and supports thyroid hormone metabolism; copper, crucial for the generation of new red blood cells and essential for bodily functions; magnesium, an important nutrient that supports energy production and blood pressure regulation; and phosphorus, which help in the metabolism of carbohydrates and fats, as well as in protein production.

The nutritional profile of chia seeds is rounded by good amounts of vitamins B3 (niacin) and B1 (thiamin), as well as minerals, including calcium, iron, and zinc. The combined action of these nutrients contributes to support immunity, bone mineral density, neurological functions, and red blood cells production.

An ounce of chia seeds (28.35 g) provides 138 calories and an impressive 39% of the daily value for dietary fiber.

How to Consume Chia

Quick Facts (How to Consume)
  • Edible partsSeed
Chia How to Use

Chia seeds are the most commonly consumed part of the plant, though chia sprouts can also be eaten as a vegetable.

Natural Forms

  • Dried. Chia seeds can be mixed into smoothies, sprinkled onto yogurt and salads for a nutritional kick. Chia puddings are a great way to consume the mucilaginous seeds and take advantage of their health benefits.

  • Flour. Consuming chia flour tends to raise the body's omega-3 fatty acid levels more than whole chia seeds, and contribute to lower blood pressure. The dried and finely ground seeds of chia can be sprinkled on yogurt and other preparations to add nutritional value.

Herbal Remedies & Supplements

Chia can also be consumed in medicinal doses for specific health benefits.

  • Oil. Chia oil is typically consumed by those looking for a high dose of omega-3 fatty acids for cardiovascular health.

  • Capsules. Chia capsules provide a consistent dosage of nutrients, and are a great way to reap the hypoglycemic, cardioprotective, and anti-inflammatory properties of the plant.

Buying

Quick Facts (Buying)
  • Where to buySupermarkets, Specialized health stores, Online herb stores, Online health stores

Natural Forms

As demand for chia products expands, more and more locations worldwide are carrying the seed: even grocery stores and supermarkets outside of its native regions reportedly have it in supply. The majority of health food stores will also offer the seeds, both raw and pre-added to other foods. Ethnic markets are also a great place to search with early autumn months providing a surge in availability from the harvesting season.

Herbal Remedies & Supplements

Chia seed oil is the most popular and widely available supplement of the plant. It is often readily found in health food stores and supermarkets that carry organic goods. Capsules can also sometimes carried by wholesale retailers. Finally, online outlets are effective resources for fulfilling individual needs regarding price and quantity.

Growing

Quick Facts (Growing)
  • Life cycleAnnual
  • Harvested partsSeeds
  • Light requirementsFull sun
  • Growing habitatTemperate climates

A perennial when grown in the wild, chia is usually considered annual when grown for commercial purposes, as harvest will require the plant to be torn.

Growing Guidelines

  • Chia is best propagated from seed when average temperatures reach 65°F (18°C) or higher, though it can be grown successfully year-round as an indoor plant.

  • Full, warm sunlight and sandy, well-draining soil will promote rapid growth.

  • Seeds should be spread 18 - 24 inches (46 - 60 cm) apart so that each specimen has room to spread. Gardeners should start to see sprouts within two weeks of sowing.

  • Weeding should be continuous and thorough during the plant's first months, but once a good cover has been developed the issue will take care of itself.

  • Once established, the plant requires little upkeep, and seeds can be harvested in late summer or early fall.

Additional Information

Plant Biology

Standing slightly over three feet (1 m) tall, chia features pointed, ovate leaves on erect, branching stems. In summer months, clusters of bright blue flowers bloom at the end of each stem, and small black - or, less commonly, white - seeds contain the majority of the plant's essential nutrients.

  • Classification

    Chia (Salvia hispanica) is a member of the Lamiaceae or mint family, which comprises over 4000 species across 240 genera, including a large number of aromatic herbs, such as basil (Ocimum basilicum), common sage (Salvia officinalis), lavender (Lavandula officinalis), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), oregano (Origanum vulgare), peppermint (Mentha piperita), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), and thyme (Thymus vulgaris). Salvia is the largest genus in this family, encompassing 900 different species.

  • Related Species

    Though chia has no true subspecies, it does share close characteristics with other members of the Salvia genus. S. columariae, for example, also known as golden chia, can be used to the same ends as common chia. However, its natural range of growth spreads further north into what is now the southwestern United States, and its stems feature fewer branches and brighter flowers. It is also sometimes confused with S. lavandulifolia, or Spanish sage, a European species that is under study as a possible memory aid.

Historical Information

For thousands of years, chia was one of the four staple food sources among ancient Mesoamerican tribes along with amaranth (kiwicha), beans, and maize. Teotihuacan and Toltec civilizations are said to have cultivated it widely even before the Aztec empire. History also reports that it was used as currency and a bartering tribute to the gods until roughly 900 BCE. Modern research has brought the plant's importance back to life, and since the 1980s, chia has been considered as a household name once again.

Economic Data

Several centuries of crop repression later, chia has begun regaining strength as a commercially-viable plant, not only in its original areas of growth, but also on a worldwide scale. Latin American countries such as Mexico and Ecuador remain the top producers, but Australia and Ghana have also begun to see the plant as being economically beneficial. Western Europe and the U.S. are major importation regions, and more than 100 products around the world incorporate the grain into manufactured foodstuffs.

Other Uses

Chia is a popular ornamental plant throughout climates that support its cultivation. The 1980s even saw a surge in the plant's popularity with the Chia Pet, a novelty figurine that sprouted shoots through perforations in the surface. While nostalgic appeal means this product is returning to shelves, production has waned since its heyday.

Bibliography

  • USDA Nutrient Database, National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference: Full Report (All Nutrients): 12006, Seeds, chia seeds, dried
  • FAOSTAT, Flavours, Spices, and Edible Gums: Opportunities for Integrated Agroforestry Systems
  • Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Chia seed supplementation and disease risk factors in overweight women: a metabolomics investigation, 2012
  • Royal Horticultural Society, Index of Garden Plants
  • European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Reduction in postprandial glucose excursion and prolongation of satiety: possible explanation of the long-term effects of whole grain Salba (Salvia Hispanica L.), 2009
  • Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology, The Promising Future of Chia, Salvia hispanica L., 2012
  • Plant Foods for Human Nutrition, Chia flour supplementation reduces blood pressure in hypertensive subjects, 2014
  • Reviews on Recent Clinical Trials, Chia (Salvia hispanica): A Systematic Review by the Natural Standard Research Collaboration
  • Smithsonian Magazine, Chia Pet
  • Diabetes Care, Supplementation of Conventional Therapy with the Novel Grain Salba (Salvia hispanica L.) Improves Major and Emerging Cardiovascular Risk Factors in Type 2 Diabetes: Results of a Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Journal of the American College of Nutrition, Omega-3 fatty acids in inflammation and autoimmune diseases, 2002
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