Chia Seeds: Ancient Uses and Novel Benefits

chia seeds nutrition and benefits

Credit: Indigostock

These days it’s rather impossible to avoid chia in the stores: juices, desserts, cereal items…

Chia is widely advertised as a nutritional and heath-promoting “it” food and many close friends became instantly hooked thanks to the bestseller “Born to Run” by Chris McDougall. But is it really all accurate? I was advised to be skeptical of the claims made by big corporations. Today, I share some relevant chia-basics for those with a penchant for novelty (and a healthy dose of skepticism).

Origin of chia

Chia seed is labeled as “novelty” food although it has been known over 5,000 years ago to the Mayans, Aztecs and Incas. The name “chia” comes from Nahuatl, the colloquial Aztec language that means “oily”. The seeds were called the “running food” by the Aztecs and only two tablespoons of seeds (a “survival ration”) was said to fully energize a person for a day. Chia seed comes from the plant known as Salvia hispanica that is native to tropical America—Mexico and Guatemala in particular. There are several varieties of chia including Salvia polystachya, Hyptis suaveolens (known as chan or fat chia) and Salvia columbariae var. columbariae Benth (golden chia).

What are the nutritional properties of chia seeds?

According to USDA, one ounce (28.4 g) of chia contains 10 g of dietary fiber (40% DV), 4.7 g protein (9% DV), magnesium (23% DV) and iron (12% DV).

Chia along with flax seed is the vegetable food with the highest percentage of omega-3 fatty acids. Another important benefit is its ideal ratio of omega-3 to omega-6. Furthermore, chia is rich in natural lipid antioxidants that result in an increased stability of omega-3, unlike other foods with omega-3 such as fish and flax seeds. The identified antioxidants include flavonol glycosides, chlorogenic acid, caffeic acid, quercetin and myricetin[1]. One obvious advantage of natural antioxidants is that no preservatives are needed (such as Vitamin E) to retain the benefits of omega-3. As a result, the dry seeds can keep for several years.

Chia is naturally pesticide free and hence a low-maintenance plant: the cultivation of the seeds is environmentally friendly since chia leaves have a natural oil protection that acts as a natural pesticide.

Chia seeds have a high content (17-20%) of high-quality proteins, and the content is higher than that of wheat, oat and barley, being roughly equivalent to that of fresh beef.

Chia is rich in minerals too, including calcium, iron, potassium, copper, magnesium, phosphorus and zinc. Only 2 tablespoons of Chia seed contains 18% of the recommended daily calcium intake. According to USDA, chia contains 205 mg of calcium per 100 grams (as a comparison, 244 g or one glass of “whole milk” has 276 mg of calcium) and is thus a great substitute for people who don’t eat or drink milk products.

The high fiber content of chia seeds corresponds to that of flax seed and both are around 35g per 100g. That is surpassed only by wheat bran, which tops with about 50g per 100g pretty much all food.

Chia seeds nutrition and benefits

Credit: Indigostock

How to eat chia seeds?

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has approved chia seeds in January 2013 as a novelty food ingredient with advanced uses. The dose, however, is limited: baked goods, breakfast cereals and nut-fruit mixtures may contain a maximum of 5% chia seeds. EFSA recommends eating the maximum of 15 g of unprocessed chia seeds per day. The USDA guidelines are more flexible allowing 48 g of chia seeds daily.

Is it safe?

The historical usage of chia implies that S. hispanica is safe for consumption by non-allergic individuals[2].

Eating chia seeds (…is quite simple)

One reason why chia seeds have become a popular source of omega-3 is that they can be eaten as they are and they need not be ground, such as flax seed, to be absorbed by the body. Chia seeds have a really mild and neutral taste and can be added to salads or yogurt without any change in taste. They can be added to various drinks too, such as water or juice; chia will absorb the liquid to form a jelly-like beverage. Just like a regular seed, chia can be used in various pastry and bread creations.

Chia health benefits

Benefits of Alpha-linolenic acid (α-linolenic acid)

Alpha-linolenic acid present in chia counteracts inflammation in the body[3]; it helps reduce bad cholesterol, supports the heart and improves concentration, mental clarity, and mood.

Dietary fiber in chia and its effect on diet

Chia increases satiety index[4] and may reduce cravings for sweets and junk food thanks to the the high content of soluble dietary fiber. In addition, the gel sleeve ensures that the carbohydrates contained in Chia are slowly broken down in the body, so they allow the blood sugar levels to rise slowly. Some studies suggest that due to its water-holding, organic molecule absorption and oil-holding properties, chia may be a useful ingredient in dietetic products[5]. It was found, however, that chia seed does not promote weight loss, has no influence on body mass or composition, or various disease risk factors in overweight adults [6].

Benefits of chia seeds in water

A striking feature of chia seed is its ability to bind water. If you add some water, chia seeds will change consistency and turn into a gel. The reason is the outer gel-forming polysaccharide layer—similar to that of flax seed. The seed can increase in weight 7-12 times when water is absorbed and then form a gelatinous sheath of fibrous materials around it. These soaked seeds provide the body with sustained fluid and nutrients. The soluble fiber cleanses the digestive tract and helps break down harmful deposits in the intestines. Digestion and heartburn problems are are also taken care of, without undesirable side effects. In case of diarrhea, chia will soak up liquid and build a mucous membrane on the intestinal wall that inhibits pathogenic bacteria.

Chia and diabetes

Chia can be a food of choice for diabetics[7] because of its balancing effect on blood sugar levels. A 2009 study[8] identified positive benefits of the intake of chia seed on elevated lipids, such as cholesterol (dyslipidaemia) and insulin resistance (IR). Chia seed-supplemented rats improved their insulin sensitivity as well as glucose tolerance[9].

Chia and plasma ALA & EPA

A 2012[10] study showed that ingestion of 25 g/day grounded chia seeds for seven weeks by postmenopausal women produced significant increases in plasma α-linolenic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid.

Calories in chia seeds?

  • 1 oz of chia (28.4 g) has 138 calories
  • 100 grams of chia has 486 calories
  • 1 teaspoon of chia has 22 calories
  • 1 tablespoon of chia has 70 calories

I admit that, I too, love chia. I fact, I loved it from day one when I was presented with a fruity, breakfast smoothie by a marathoner friend. So happy to share that it’s very nutritious and safe for use.


[1] Taga, M. S., Miller, E. E., & Pratt, D. E. (1984). Chia seeds as a source of natural lipid antioxidants. Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society, 61(5), 928-931.

[2] Ulbricht, C., Chao, W., Nummy, K., Rusie, E., Tanguay-Colucci, S., Iannuzzi, C. M., … & Weissner, W. (2009). Chia (Salvia hispanica): a systematic review by the natural standard research collaboration. Reviews on recent clinical trials, 4(3), 168-174

[3] Muñoz, L. A., Cobos, A., Diaz, O., & Aguilera, J. M. (2013). Chia seed (Salvia hispanica): An ancient grain and a new functional food. Food Reviews International, 29(4), 394-408.

[4] Muñoz, L. A., Cobos, A., Diaz, O., & Aguilera, J. M. (2013). Chia seed (Salvia hispanica): An ancient grain and a new functional food. Food Reviews International, 29(4), 394-408.

[5] Alfredo, V. O., Gabriel, R. R., Luis, C. G., & David, B. A. (2009). Physicochemical properties of a fibrous fraction from chia (< i> Salvia hispanica</i> L.). LWT-Food Science and Technology, 42(1), 168-173.

[6] Nieman, D. C., Cayea, E. J., Austin, M. D., Henson, D. A., McAnulty, S. R., & Jin, F. (2009). Chia seed does not promote weight loss or alter disease risk factors in overweight adults. Nutrition research, 29(6), 414-418.

[7] Muñoz, L. A., Cobos, A., Diaz, O., & Aguilera, J. M. (2013). Chia seed (Salvia hispanica): An ancient grain and a new functional food. Food Reviews International, 29(4), 394-408.

[8] Chicco, A. G., D’Alessandro, M. E., Hein, G. J., Oliva, M. E., & Lombardo, Y. B. (2009). Dietary chia seed (Salvia hispanica L.) rich in α-linolenic acid improves adiposity and normalises hypertriacylglycerolaemia and insulin resistance in dyslipaemic rats. British journal of nutrition, 101(01), 41-50.

[9] Poudyal, H., Panchal, S. K., Waanders, J., Ward, L., & Brown, L. (2012). Lipid redistribution by< i> α</i>-linolenic acid-rich chia seed inhibits stearoyl-CoA desaturase-1 and induces cardiac and hepatic protection in diet-induced obese rats. The Journal of nutritional biochemistry, 23(2), 153-162.

[10] Jin, F., Nieman, D. C., Sha, W., Xie, G., Qiu, Y., & Jia, W. (2012). Supplementation of milled chia seeds increases plasma ALA and EPA in postmenopausal women. Plant foods for human nutrition, 67(2), 105-110.

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