You may already be familiar with chia seeds—at least in chia “pets,” dating back to the 1970s, where the seeds are sprouted on terracotta figurines of animals (including humans) to mimic fur or hair. (There’s now a “candidate series” featuring the heads of Obama, Clinton, Sanders, and perhaps least surprisingly given all the attention to his hairstyle, Trump.)
But did you know that chia has a long history of use as food and medicine? Here are some chia seed tidbits, gleaned from a 2016 review article in the Journal of Food Science and Technology:
- Indigenous to Mexico and Guatemala, chia (Salvia hispanica L.) was the second leading crop after beans in pre-Columbian cultures. Besides its use in folk medicine, chia has been used in religious ceremonies and in cosmetics.
- The word chia is derived from the Aztec word chian, which means “oily,” a reference to its high content of unsaturated fats. Much of the fat is alpha-linolenic acid, a plant omega-3 fat.
- The seeds are rich in protein, nutrients (such as calcium and magnesium), and fiber, along with phenolic antioxidants (including chlorogenic acid, caffeic acid, and quercetin).
- Because of the high fiber content, the seeds can absorb a lot of water (up to 15 times the weight of the seed). By forming a gelatinous mass when digested or mixed with a liquid beforehand, it’s thought that chia seeds may slow digestion, improve blood sugar control, and increase satiety—though more research is needed to confirm such effects.
- There’s also some preliminary evidence that the seeds may lower triglycerides and blood pressure. Topical application may improve some skin conditions. More studies are needed to confirm whether the seeds have cardioprotective, immune-enhancing, anti-inflammatory, or any other claimed benefits.
- Essential oils in chia leaves are being studied for possible insect-repellent properties.
Bottom line: It’s too soon to say if chia seeds can help with weight loss, diabetes, joint pain, or any other medical conditions. Include them in your diet if you like them. You can find them in a range of commercial foods, from baked goods, pasta, and cereal bars to yogurts and puddings. Or you can incorporate them in your own baking and cooking and add them to smoothies (try this Strawberry Chia Smoothie recipe from the American Institute for Cancer Research).