You might think that everyone who has diabetes would know about a seed that is superior to other plant and marine sources of essential omega-3 oils. It is also high in antioxidants and fiber. Besides that, it is high in protein and lipids, is low in sodium, and has fewer net carbs than grains.
But we have more misinformation about it than we have knowledge.
The seed is called chia (Salvia hispanica) and is a member of the mint family. It originated in Mexico’s central valley.
Before the Spanish conquest, chia was a big part of the Aztec and Mayan diets and was the basic survival ration of Aztec warriors. But the conquerors came close to wiping out chia. Maybe that was because of the Aztec custom of cutting images of gods made from chia dough into pieces and eating them after their religious ceremonies. That was too close for comfort to the practices of the conquering religion.
Over the past few decades, commercial production has resumed in Latin America. Much of the credit for this needs to go to Wayne Coates, Ph.D., who retired just two months ago as a research professor in the Office of Arid Lands Studies at the University of Arizona, Tucson. Together with Richardo Ayerza Jr., Dr. Coates wrote the definitive book on the subject, Chia: Rediscovering a Forgotten Crop of the Aztecs (The University of Arizona Press, 2005).
Dr. Wayne Coates (image used by permission)
Their work led to the commercial cultivation of chia in Peru.
Chia is 16 percent protein, 31 percent fat, and 44 percent carbohydrate of which 38 percent is fiber. Most of its fat is the essential omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid or ALA, according to the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 20 (2007).
Exactly how much of chia’s fiber is insoluble and soluble is hard to pin down. But about three-fourths is insoluble and one-fourth soluble. Still, chia’s soluble fiber has a much higher viscosity than other dietary fibers such as beta-glucan and guar. This means that it has significantly increased intestinal transit time, delayed gastric emptying, and a slower rate of glucose absorption.
For all its power chia is a remarkably mild tasting seed. I add it to everything from salad to yogurt to eggs and ground bison. I enjoy its nutlike flavor and sometimes eat a handful of whole seeds straight from the container. Chia is a tasty, interesting, and healthful addition to my diet.
But for such a little-known food we can find a remarkable amount of stuff on the Internet that just isn’t true. Dr. Coates helped guide me through this morass.
I don’t have any interest in the recipes for chia that I found in the book by James F. Sheer, The Magic of Chia (Berkeley, California, Frog Ltd., 2001). But essentially all of those recipes call for soaking the chia in a glass of water to form a gel. Is that really necessary?
It’s not, Dr. Coates replied. “They were believers in soaking, but all that does is bring out the soluble fiber. It doesn’t do anything more magical than that. There is no documented reason to make a gel to use it. I personally just put it on my salad every night and eat it that way.”