Chia, also known as Mexican chia and Spanish sage, refers to Salvia hispanica, an annual herb native to Central America. The small, oval-shaped seeds are the edible part of the plant, and can absorb more than a dozen times their weight in water. The seeds also yield mucilage when soaked in liquid, which is why chia seed is used to make refrigerator jam and to thicken other foods. In fact, chia makes a fine pudding. Gel produced from the ground seed can also be used as an egg substitute in baked goods. Of course, if you’re old enough to remember watching The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family (not the re-runs), you probably had a Chia Pet at one point, the clay figurine from which chai seeds were sprouted to form the shape of an animal, a cartoon character or (more recently) a well-known politician.
Chia seed is considered to be a “super” food, and for good reason. It contains more protein than quinoa but is as readily digestible as oats. Unlike other plant sources, chia offers a complete protein because it contains all nine essential amino acids, as well as a variety of non-essential amino acids, such as arginine. It also contains less than 15% prolamins, which is why the seed is usually well-tolerated in people with Celiac disease, or who are otherwise sensitive to gluten.
There is evidence that chia seed may help to prevent heart disease by reducing the occurrence of several associated risk factors, like obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes. For one thing, a mere two tablespoons of chia seed delivers nearly 40% of the RDA of fiber, in both soluble and insoluble form. Chia also contains the polyphenols chlorogenic and caffeic acids, as well as the flavonols quercetin, myricetin and kaempferol. Collectively, these compounds exert potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anticytotoxic (inhibits toxins in cells) and antithrombotic (prevents blood clots) effects. Studies using animal models (rats) show that a daily dose of chia seed appears to significant lower blood levels of 8-isoprostane, a marker for oxidative stress commonly seen in people who consume too much fat and sugar. Similar studies reveal that chai seed may reduce serum glucose levels.
While chia seed is not pose a risk of toxicity or allergenic effects, the fact that it absorbs so much water will certainly become a problem if you eat too many, or take some without sufficient water with it, causing considerable gastronomic upset. In other words, this is one case where “too much of a good thing can be bad” applies. Guidance established by the USDA and US Department of Health and Human Services recommends one tablespoon chia seed per day (one-half ounce, or about 50 grams).