Chia seed is harvested from Salvia hispanica, a variety of sage in the mint family that’s native to Mexico and South America. It is also cultivated in the American southwest, where the plant is commonly known as California Chia or California Sage. Of course, chia gained notoriety in the 1970s and 1980s as a house plant and novelty item that consisted of the sprouted seed over a clay form to emulate a “pet” or famous figure. Today, chia seed is considered a modern “super food,” although there is ample evidence that its use as such actually dates to pre-Columbian times.
For thousands of years, the tiny seed was a staple source of nutrition and long-lasting energy for the Mayans, Incans and Aztecs, who gave the plant its common name from a Nahuatl word that means “strength.” Warriors and traders took the seed along while traveling long distances to suppress hunger during times of scarcity but still guarantee endurance. In fact, it was often referred to as “Indian running food.” The Aztecs placed such a high value on the seed that it was even used as a form of currency.
What can you do with chia seed? Short answer: A lot.
Like the ancients who used chia seed as a form of maize, it can be used as a thickener for a variety of foods and beverages. Combined with coconut milk and spices, chia seed makes a healthy and delicious pudding. The seeds can be sprouted to make “greenlings” for salads and sandwiches – or chia pets. Whole seeds can be added to soups, stews and gravies to thicken, used in place of breadcrumbs in meatloaf and meatballs or used as coating for baked chicken or fish. Add the seeds to cereals, smoothies or yogurt. Mixed with a little water, the ground seed is an excellent egg substitute in many recipes.
Health Benefits of Chia Seed
Because each seed absorbs many more times its volume in water, chia is a natural appetite suppressant by the virtue of simply filling you up. Raw and by the handful, it’s a great snack or a quick go-to option when you’re on the run.
Nutritionally speaking, chia seed is loaded. According to the USDA, 100 g of chia seed (3.5 oz. or about ½ US cup by weight) provides 34.4 g of dietary fiber, 16.54 g of protein, 54% of the daily recommended allowance of thiamine (vitamin B-1), 59% niacin (B-3) and 63% calcium. Chia seed is also a significant source of vitamins A, E, and D, the essential fatty acids alpha-linolenic and linoleic acid, and trace minerals, especially phosphorus, manganese and zinc.