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Cha Cha Chia!

By Michele Hatton

The increasingly popular chia seed is gaining notoriety throughout the developed world. In fact, at New Leaf Market, demand is so high the store has trouble keeping them in stock. These tiny oval seeds come from the desert plant, Salvia hispanica, which belongs to the mint family. Their origins stretch back to the ancient Mayans and Aztec, who according to some sources, grew them as a staple crop, like maize, and used them in rituals, as athletic boosters, and for basic nutrition. Today, chia plants are grown commercially primarily in Mexico and parts of South America. 

Nutritional expert Dr. Andrew Weil claims the seeds are high in fiber and a better source of omega-3 fatty acids than flax seeds. Weil also says that chia seeds are so rich in antioxidants, they don't deteriorate and can be stored for long periods without becoming rancid. Unlike flax, chia seeds do not have to be ground to make their nutrients available to the body, but can be popped in the mouth as is. The USDA confirms these health benefits and goes on to report that a one-ounce serving of chia seeds contains 18 percent of the recommended daily intake of calcium, 27 percent of phosphorus and 30 percent of manganese.

Although there are few studies on the health benefits of chia seeds, WebMD reports that they are used for diabetes, high blood pressure, and for reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Chia seeds have another unique quality: they are hydrophilic, absorbing 9-12 times their own weight in water. When added to water and allowed to sit ten minutes, the seeds transform into a thick gel. Research suggests this reaction also takes place in the stomach, slowing down the breakdown of carbohydrates into sugar. The gelatinous characteristic of these seeds makes them versatile thickeners for stews, soups and gravies.

Chia seeds are being added to a range of foods like chicken and cattle feed to make eggs and milk rich in omega-3s. Another bonus, claims Weil, is that insects don't like the chia plant so it is easier to find organically grown varieties.

Chia seeds have a mild nutty flavor and when added to foods or beverages, don’t alter the taste. Use them as a topping or put into smoothies, oatmeal, or yogurt. Sprinkle them on cereal, sauces, salads, vegetables, or rice dishes. Grind them up and add them to flour when baking. Or just snack on them whole.

In Mexico, the “chia fresco” is a popular drink, made by stirring 2 teaspoons of the seeds into 10 ounces of water (you'll end up with a slightly gelatinous liquid). Add lime or lemon juice and sweetener to taste. Enjoy. 

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