It’s the little seed from Central America with a big punch. Alessandra Felice delves into the health benefits of chia seeds…
Chia seeds are the seeds of the plant ‘salvia hispanica’ and are native to Central America. They were sacred for the Aztecs and used in religious ceremonies, as they were believed to provide supernatural powers. In Mayan, ‘chia’ means ‘strength’.
Chia was also used as medicine, ground into flour, mixed as an ingredient in drinks, and pressed for oil. Chia seeds are an essential ingredient in a traditional Mexican and Central American drink called chia fresca, in which the seeds are mixed into lime or lemon juice with added sweetener.
In recent years, they have gained quite a bit of popularity for their nutritional benefits, but also because they have a mild, nutty flavour that pairs well with both sweet and savoury foods, adding crunch or a mousse-like texture to different preparations when soaked in liquid.
These seeds may be tiny, but they are a powerhouse of beneficial nutrients. They’re a great source of dietary fibre that makes up almost their whole carbohydrate content. These fibres can absorb their own weight up to 10-12 times, changing the seeds to a gel-like mass.
Healthy fatty acids
Chia seeds are also made up of about 20% protein and contain a good balance of essential amino acids, which makes them a great plant-based protein source. Plus, they are a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, helping to provide a more balanced ratio of omega 3s to omega 6s.
Approximately 75% of the fats in chia include the omega-3 alpha linolenic acid (ALA), while about 20% of them consist of omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3s like linoleic acid aid the absorption of fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Adequate levels of omega-3s have been associated with reduced risk rates of chronic and inflammatory diseases.
Chia seeds are one of nature’s richest sources of antioxidants such as quercitin and kaempferol. Antioxidants support prevention of damage to cells, lower oxidative stress and inflammation levels, which could be beneficial for skin health, as they contribute to the skin’s repair systems and prevent further free radical damage. They’re also rich in essential minerals – calcium, magnesium, potassium, manganese, copper and iron.
When combined with liquid, chia seeds swell and form a gel that can be used as a substitute for eggs in baked goods. Simply mix 1 tbsp seeds with 3 tbsp water to get the equivalent of one egg – perfect for cakes, cookies, muffins or sweet loaves.
If you want to make your smoothie even more nutritious and richer in protein, add a couple of tbsp chia. Or use chia in protein bars and energy truffles or flapjacks, homemade granolas and raw brownies. Simply sprinkle them as a topping for porridge, yoghurt and even salads. Speaking of salads, throw them in to thicken your dressing and add them as a thickener to soups and dips, or use them as a binding agent for homemade burgers and veggie meatballs.
The gel also works well when making pancakes and waffles for a brunch, and you can prepare your own jam to go with it, as the gelling ability makes them a fine substitute for pectin. Mix 1 tbsp to about 1 cup of cooked berries and you’ll see it thickens the sauce and forms a jam-like consistency. Sweeten as you desire, add minced ginger or lemon juice if you’d like more flavour to it.
The easiest way to make chia puddings is to take about 350ml (12fl oz) liquid (you’ll get the best results with non-dairy milks like almond or coconut), stir in about 60g (2oz) seeds, then add your favourite spices such as ½ tsp cinnamon and vanilla, a pinch of salt and 1-2 tbsp sweetener, if you’d like. Put in the fridge for 1-2 hours, or overnight for an even better texture.
Top with fresh berries, granola, a sprinkle of seeds, a spoonful of nut butter, cacao nibs, coconut chips – basically any of your favourite toppings.
A few tips to make your chia pudding more flavourful are: making sure your soaking liquid is flavoured first, either by stirring in a sweetener of your choice or a few dates; mixing in spices like vanilla, cinnamon, anise, cardamom or both. Also, if you add in a couple of tbsp coconut yoghurt, it will make the pudding even creamier. Cacao, vanilla, coffee, berry – virtually any flavour will work.
Some of my favourite combinations are using hazelnut milk and cacao powder to give it a Nutella flavour; blending coconut milk with turmeric, cinnamon, ginger and a pinch of black pepper for a golden milk pudding; or chai tea spices for a chai latte one. Matcha powder with vanilla and cinnamon works really well with coconut or rice milk too.
If you make a really good smoothie, save some to use as the soaking liquid for your chia seeds. Perfect for the colder months could be a sweet potato or pumpkin pie smoothie, blending cooked pumpkin or sweet potato with your favourite non-dairy milk and adding in mixed spice and maple syrup or a couple of dates. Or an eggnog smoothie with almond milk, maple/date syrup and spices like vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and a sprinkle of cloves.