antioxidants, Aubergine, Aztec culture, Born to Run, British Nutrition Foundation, building muscle, calcium, chia, chia seed, Christopher McDougall, Crussh, Elisabeth Weichselbaum, excite, feta, fibre, flax, Guatemala, Gwyneth Paltrow, hemp, long-chain fatty acids, lowering cholesterol, Mexico, mint family, Moroccan healthpots, Nutritional, oatmeal, omega-3, Pret, protein, Ray Rice, Salvia Hispanica, seed, smoothies, superathletes, superfood, superseeds, Tahini, the forgotten food of the Aztecs, University of Arizona, USDA, Wang, Wayne Coates
You’ve heard of it before, but you’re not quite sure where. It’s been on your peripheries for a while, part of the background hum of social media; noticed, but not yet acknowledged. But mentions are now reaching a critical level, and curiosities beginning to get the better of you. Is it the ‘superfood’ we’ve all been searching for, or just another product of the hype machine? One thing is certain: chia’s here, and it’s getting people very excited.
But what exactly is it? Chia, or Salvia Hispanica, is a species of flowering plant indigenous to Mexico and Guatemala. It’s broadly speaking a member of the mint family, but unlike its herby cousin it’s not prized for the flavour of its leaves, but rather for the nutritional qualities of its seeds. According to the USDA, 28g of chia seeds contain 11g of dietary fibre, 4g of protein, more omega-3 than salmon, and 3 times the calcium of milk. It’s also full of antioxidants, and has even helps stabilise your blood sugar levels. Nutritional figures like this blow flax, hemp, and other ‘superseeds’ out of the water: for the health conscious it looks like chia is about to supersede the superseeds.
Recently it’s been a hit in cafes and health food stores, adding nutritional credentials to a variety of smoothies, snacks and meals. Crussh having been adding them to their Moroccan healthpots, along with Aubergine, Feta, and Tahini, while Pret, have been whizzing them into their smoothies and sprinkling them on to oatmeal. It seems that the public can’t get enough.
The little seed’s also received some official backing. Wayne Coates, professor at the University of Arizona, said about chia: “Literally, you could live on this stuff because it’s pretty much everything you need”. Similarly Christopher McDougall, writer of Born to Run, the bestselling book about a nomadic Mexican tribe of ‘superathletes’ who use Chia to fuel their mammoth 100km runs, wrote that: “If you had to pick just one desert-island food, you couldn’t do much better than chia, at least if you were interested in building muscle, lowering cholesterol, and reducing your risk of heart disease; after a few months on the chia diet, you could probably swim home”.
But chia is no panacea. In an interview with the BBC, Elisabeth Weichselbaum of the British Nutrition Foundation denied the claims that we can live on chia alone: “It is true that some foods are higher in vitamins and minerals, but no single food provides us with everything we need”. Equally the relevance of chia’s high omega-3 content has been called into question by concerns about our inability to convert these plant oils into the long-chain fatty acids our bodies crave. This idea is advocated by Wang, whose 2006 study suggested that plant-oil supplements do not offer the same benefits against heart disease as fish oil.
Another major drawback of chia is the taste, or lack thereof. The seeds certainly have a good crunch, adding texture to breads, yogurts, or even fish, but their taste is bland at best. Some of the more generous reviews have described the seeds as slightly nutty, but the general impression is that they have practically nothing to offer the palate. So given that they are virtually tasteless and nutritionally questionable, why are they proving so successful?
I think the answer to this lies predominately in chia’s ability to excite. As in the world of fashion and art, many products are exciting purely on account of their being new and sought after. In this way, chia is so desirable because it is so desired. Its success in Hollywood, and its endorsements from the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, and athlete Ray Rice, only adds to this.
Equally Chia is exotic and mysterious. The seeds were once an important part of Aztec culture; used in religious ceremonies and prized for their medicinal properties. But then they suddenly disappeared, lost for 500 years, only surviving in a handful of little villages in Mexico and Guatemala. This image of chia as the forgotten food of the Aztecs gives it a mystical allure, endowing any dish you put it in with a consumer grabbing ‘wow factor’.
Overall, I think that it’s these exciting elements of chia which gives it such a big draw. Maybe they make us healthier, maybe they don’t, but the excitement they bring certainly makes us happier. In this way, the main benefit of chia may not be a physical one but a psychological one. And so, whether you believe the nutritional hype or not, it is undeniably true that ‘a meal that’s full of chia, will make you chia-full’.