Is The Chia Craze Inflated?

I collect seeds like a squirrel. But I don’t bury them, I stash them in jars, not wanting to discover one winter day while hibernating in my over-heated New York City apartment, that the stockpile of flax seeds has been depleted.

The seeds go into soups, onto salads, mixed with yogurt and tossed with sauteed kale in need of texture.

Texture’s a big thing in my life – at six it was crunchy peanut butter over smooth, during my bagel phase – Everything bagels with the stray everythings from the bottom of the bag emptied on top of the cream cheese, and lately it’s been chunky sauteed vegetables in my scrambled omelet*.

The latest addition to the seed collection – chia seeds. I bought them because an exotic woman with beads six-inches up her wrist, and elegant silver rings that hugged her fingers, was buying them. “For the Omegas” she said, “I eat them daily.”  I had heard of their Omega reputation, and their Mexican origins, but with my hemp, flax and fish oil habit firmly entrenched, I wasn’t sure there was room for another player. (The chia seeds, by the way, are in the middle of the photo above, flanked by hemp and flax.)

But I was open to them, because as far as nutrients go, I’m a zealous proselytizer of Omega 3′s (one of the essential fatty acids). We get a lot of Omega 6 in vegetable oils, and Omega 9 our body can make, but Omega 3 we can only get from food, and foods rich in them (oily fish for example) are not a common snack. (Ideally our diet should contain 2:1 Omega 6:Omega 3. For most people it’s 10:1, or higher.)

So chia joined my seed family. Verdict: when you first meet them, you’ll think you’re eating poppy seeds, but if you allow them to soak up moisture in whatever it is you’re putting them in (yogurt, a smoothie), within 10 minutes the little seeds will turn into gelatinous baubles -  tiny flavorless little, bally, gummy bears.  (With the mere suggestion of water, they inflate to 9x their size.)

I don’t think I’ll collect them on a regular basis, the gummy thing is not really my thing, but I respect their strengths.  Below, a completely biased assessment (coupled with unbiased research) of chia relative to flax and hemp.

Chia vs. Flax and Hemp

Taste&Texture: Starts life like a poppy seed but turns into gluey tapioca – at least from a mouth-feel standpoint. Hemp and flax, even when doused in yogurt, don’t change personality half way through your meal. Unlike flax and hemp, chia doesn’t bring its own taste which may be a benefit or a detriment.

Fat: At 2 g per tbsp, it’s lower than flax or hemp – though I don’t think this should this should weight heavily on the choice since it’s all “good” fat we’re talking about. (Flax and hemp are about the same – when measured on a weight standpoint.)

Omegas:  Both chia and flax have more Omega 3 (in the form of LNA**) than any other plant.  There is some debate as to whether one has more than the other, with many sources declaring one the clear winner. (Simple rule of thumb: if a website claims flax has twice as much as chia, check if they’re selling flax; if chia has more, scan the page for a purchase link for chia.). So let’s call it a draw. They are both super high and both have higher levels than hemp which offers a more balanced Omega 3 to 6 ratio.

Protein: Moderate amount (about the same as flax at 3g per tbsp), but about half that of hemp (which is a superstar in the protein department).

Carbs: Chia has the highest of the three and it’s largely in the form of fiber. Hemp has virtually no carbs (it’s all protein and (good) fat).  You can actually see chia swell up and form a jelly-like mass of soluble fiber by soaking a tbsp in a 1/2 cup of water and letting it sit for 30 mins. It is in part this “inflation” in the stomach, that has led people historically and today, to use chia as an energy food. When you eat chia, be sure to drink plenty of water.

Phytoestrogens***: This is estrogen that is not created by the body, but is found in food. Flax and soy are quite high in them. There is debate as to whether they are benign, good or bad for you. I personally feel, in moderation, flax should not be a concern, but if you are concerned, go for chia or hemp which have no/low levels.

Other: You don’t have to grind chia, as you do flax, in order to extract the oils. Chia’s also cheaper than both flax and hemp (the latter is all imported from Canada).

There are a variety of antioxidants and other trace minerals in chia, as well as a solid dose of calcium and iron and it will fill you up more than flax or hemp. It’s a super nutritious food, so if you’re into it – eat it!  My only word of caution – if you don’t like tapioca, don’t walk away from wet chia seeds.

Ever tried it?

Related Posts
Hemp Seeds: Better For You Than Flax Seeds (A comparison of hemp versus flax)
Fish Oil v. Flax Oil: Omegas Demystified (Learn more about the kind of Omega 3 that fish oil offers that flax, hemp and chia don’t)

*Eggs mixed with sauteed vegetables, scrambled together but allowed to settle in the pan like an omelet.
**LNA=alpha linoleic acid (See the post on fish oil, above, to see what this Omega 3 does)
*** The Wikipedia entry on phytoestrogens.

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  • PepperReed

    Thanks for the info. I’m trying to get more omega 3′s but don’t eat as much fish as I should (and don’t really want to put a straw in a bottle of cod liver oil!) I never really thought about adding them to ‘non grain’ items; I usually just sprinkle on oatmeal, etc. I’ll try adding to kale and sauté’s to switch it up.

  • kelly

    I’ve recently experimented with making my own almond milk. Someone told me 1/4 cup raw almonds blended with 1 cup water makes great homemade milk. Since I’ve been thinking about phasing out dairy from my diet to see if I’m intolerant, I’ve been trying to find substitutes. The almond milk seemed to be *almost* there, except the mouth feel was lacking.

    So in a moment of inspiration, I added a scoop of chia seeds. Much better! Although a scoop was probably too much. Still need to experiment with amounts. But I think I’m on to something …

    ps. to be honest, I also add 1 TBS cocoa powder and 1 TBS agave sweetener for a more chocolatey milk. :)

    • Michelle

      Nice! That’s a great way to use chia since there is no question that bring a lot of their own thickeners with them.

  • http://www.culture-connoisseur.blogspot.com Hannah (Culture Connoisseur)

    Funny, I store up my seeds and grains in the same way. Its become an usual habit for me. No jar goes uncleaned. When I use a jar of spaghetti sauce it gets cleaned out so it can be filled to the brim and placed on the shelf along with the others who now host my grains.

    Hmm, I like what chia has to offer, and I’m a huge fan of tapioca (the big kind used in boba milk tea). I’ll have to pick them up to try this weekend. Thanks for the info!

  • Cindy

    It’s funny you say this as I too am not of fan of their mouthfeel once they get soft – I love them in their crunchy state though, so it’s good to learn that they’re as nutritious as flax (which I’m not a fan of mainly due to the stronger flavor).

  • Carrie Hogan

    I had no clue there was even a chia craze! Thanks. Hmmmm

    • Michelle

      It’s getting quite a following … flax was all the rage for a while, then hemp got some fans and now chia’s getting attention. You can’t go wrong with ANY foods high in Omega 3 so if you never end up getting acquainted with chia, there are others out there to meet your needs!

  • http://healthygirlskitchen.blogspot.com Wendy (Healthy Girl’s Kitchen)

    I love, love, love chia and enjoy the weird texture when they are left to sit with a liquid to form a “pudding.” I also love putting 1 Tbsp in my morning smoothie. Excellent for regularity! Thanks for another great posting.

  • http://www.myofficeisthekitchen.blogspot.com Wendopolis

    I like to make chia pudding (dates,pecans,almond milk and vanilla blended and then poured over 2 Tbl chia) and eat it for breakfast. That’s about the only way I use the seeds, so far.

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  • Shari- the “Cool Bean”

    First, I have to say I love your blog! I find invaluable information there and share it with fans at my restaurant– where we try to serve super healthful food (mostly organic, whole grain and free range/grass fed) but the economics are difficult. Thanks for inspiring enthusiastic consumption of healthful, local, fun food and for being sensitive to the financial dimension.

    Second, a comment about flaxseed. I, too, am a fan. I love its nutty flavor on cereal, with yogurt and in baked goods like muffins and even pie crust! The nutritional value, however, is largely unable to be used, i.e. it is unabsorbed, unless the flaxseed is ground. So, please, caution your readers so that they can obtain the maximum benefit from the money they spend in their pursuit of Omega-3′s.

    your humble fan,
    cool beans,
    Shari

    • Michelle

      Agreed!! I did note in the chia post that one of the adv of chia over flax is that chia does not have to be ground as flax does, and I noted this as well in the hemp v. flax post as hemp also does not have to be ground (the seeds are already de-hulled so the oil is easily extracted by the body). But thank you for underscoring this!

  • http://katzinn.com meezermom

    Yum that pudding sounds good!
    I live in a really rural area – no Chia craze going on here that I know of. I’m sure most people around here think Chia is some type of ceramic animal pet that grows ‘green’ fur!
    I had a some type of fruit drink in a cafe while traveling that had big ‘Tapioca’ in the bottom – didn’t know what it was until now. The drinks were yummy.I’ve wanted to discover a way to recreate them at home.
    I too collect seeds, dried beans and such and store them in ‘recycled’ jars. In fact I have so many jars all over my counter my dad and I are in the process of building a small pantry addition for my kitchen so I can make some room on my counter tops!
    I’ll check out the food co-op next time I’m in the city and see if I can find Chia seeds.
    Thanks much – as always great information.

  • jMack

    Continue to love this blog…
    Question: I use ground flax meal (eat it at breakfast, meusli, oatmeal, yogurt..). Should I be using whole seeds? As you said, the seeds have to be ground to release the oils. Isn’t that what ground flax meal is? I keep the meal in the freezer.

    • Michelle

      No! Definitely use the flaxseed meal (which is just ground flax seeds). Unless you chew each and every whole flax seed, you won’t get the oils from them, so best to consume them ground. The freezer is a perfect place to keep them.

      • jMack

        Thanks!

  • Juliana

    How much per day? Of flax? Of chia? And can you make a chiapet if you don’t like the taste?

    • Michelle

      Yes by all means make a chia pet! But if you do, you have to promise to post it’s photo here. I tend to consume hemp, flax and fish oil over chia – just personal preference. I eat about a tbsp of hemp/flax combo a day (mainly in yogurt or on top of cooked vegs) and take 2 fish oil tablets-high in Omega 3 (about 2 grams) daily. That level feels about right for me, but you could certainly go a bit higher on the hemp/flax/chia. If you tend to eat a fair bit of oily fish you might skip the fish oil.

  • Judy

    In th e’70′s living in the desert we were told that Indians who ran their communications by foot used chia see to keep their mouths from becoming dry and for the nourishment from the seeds.

    It works……..

    • Michelle

      How on earth did the early American Indians ever know about chia without blogs to tell them about it?! There is much for us to learn from our “real” forefathers …

  • Andrea

    Oooooh, I LOVE my chia seeds! I put a scoop in my oats daily and since oatmeal is all glompy anyway, there’s no texture issue. I don’t even know they’re there – except I can see them. I gave up flax because I think they taste like dirt (don’t ask me how I know that!) so I appreciate the tasteless aspect of Chia. Thanks for this info Michelle!

  • Kelley

    This is excellent! I use chia seeds on my oatmeal every morning, but I tend to use about a teaspoon as I find that I get a bit of a high off of the B vitamins. I also use ground flaxseeds on my oatmeal as well – yummy!

    I wanted to ask you about this craze of Mila. Ever heard of it? It sounds like a pyramid scheme (you can only purchase it from other people – sort of like Mary Kay), but I have a friend that uses it as a meal replacement. It sounds like it’s just ground up chia seeds? I’m lucky to live in SF where I can buy organic seeds in bulk!

    Thanks so much for posting this – I’m a big fan of your blog! :)

    • Michelle

      I”m going to go with pyramid scheme. Did a couple searches and there is nothing in Mila but chia seeds – ground up.

      • candice broda

        Some friends are trying to lure me into the scheme and it’s pretty off-putting. I’m very interested in chia seeds and have learned so much here. But yeah, the Mila scheme thing is annoying! They sell it for $50/lb and claim it’s “different” than what you can get at markets!

        • Michelle

          If they can’t give you an explicit reason for how it’s different, and show you evidence – walk! … to the nearest store and pay $3 a pound.

  • ben

    What about the taste?

    Anyone try making bread with chia flour?
    http://www.nuchiafoods.com/store/product_info.php?products_id=96

    • Michelle

      Ben, I’ve never tried the flour but my Mum is a celiac and uses tapioca flour in one of her muffin recipes. Here’s a recipe she uses (and loves)….http://www.thesweetbeet.com/gluten-free-muffins/

      Am sure you could substitute the tapioca flour for chia since they have many similar properties. As you’ll see, th recipe calls for a few different (non-gluten) flours.

      If you do try it, let us know how it turns out!

  • http://www.culture-connoisseur.blogspot.com Hannah (Culture Connoisseur)

    Could chia be ground up into a smoothie? Or would the texture remain?

    • Michelle

      I’ve not done it but even if you grind it, the carbs/fibre in chia, that create the gel, would still be there, just in ground form. If you drink the smoothie within say 15 mins you may not find the gel texture issue an issue. Or you may find you actually LIKE the gel texture thing! As many do …

      • http://www.culture-connoisseur.blogspot.com Hannah (Culture Connoisseur)

        I picked some up this weekend…

        The verdict: Looks like my yogurt is infested with fruit flies…and has the consitency as well.

        Not bad though. Barely noticable with your eyes closed. :-) Thanks for the recommendation!

  • http://www.findyourbalancehealth.com Michelle @ Find Your Balance

    That thickening ability is THE BOMB. Add chia seeds to coconut milk and you think you’re eating ice cream. Or at least a very tasty unsweetened pudding. Love it.

  • Alex

    I’ve read in a vegetarian cookbooks that 1 Tbsp chia mixed in a glass of liquid and drunk after 5 or 10 minutes makes the fluid more absorbable, so it’s good for dehydration. You can get the seeds in bags in my local Persian market, but those have more twigs. Look carefully!

    • Michelle

      That’s hilarious – the twig part. I suppose the twigs do provide fiber so you can’t really fault them for keeping them in …

  • http://www.slim-shoppin.com Jenn@slim-shoppin

    I use Chia seeds all the time. About 4 scoops from the bin at Whole Foods is about $3.00! I add them to pancake batter, I add them to muffins, in a smoothie, etc…

    A few weeks ago, I made my best muffins yet!

    http://www.slim-shoppin.com/amazing-chocolatebanana-oat-jumbo-muffins/

    It has banana, yogurt, chia seeds, flax seed + a little chocolate!

    • Michelle

      That chocolate drizzle (in the photo), pretty much puts them over the top!

  • Lea

    When you say gel, I wonder what you mean, because I find that ground flax makes a consistency of goopy snot in things like oatmeal, which makes me gag. I love the nutty flavor, but the gagging is too prominent to actually enjoy it. Is that only when it’s cooked, I wonder? If I sprinkle the ground flax on top, would it be better? I’ve been taking flax oil caps to get my omega 3s. I’d love to incorporate them more into my diet instead of just supplementing. And I cannot do fish oil, because I burp it, which gags me to the point of revisiting my latest meal.

    Sorry if this is disjointed! I’m composing on my phone while my baby naps on my lap! ;)

    • Michelle

      Well done on the multi-tasking! Try the flax uncooked — I often add it to oatmeal and yogurt and don’t notice ANY goop! Re the fish oil, I have def had brands that leave an after taste, but I am a big fan of “New Chapter” 100% pure salmon oil capsules (a mix of omega 3 6 and 9) that leave NO taste at all!

  • Stella

    As always, Michelle, thank you for your timely and thorough assessment. I’m loving the chia…it gives me so much energyyyyyyy!

  • http://amateur-gastronomist.blogspot.com/ Lauren

    I made a chia seed coconut milk “pudding” that was horrible. My husband took one bite and refused to eat more. I’m now trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my seed stash. Great post! Thanks for all nutrition break down.

  • Polly

    I eat about a teaspoon of chia seeds every day and I happen to like that they swell up. They add texture and a nice taste. I mix a bowl of chia, sunflower, and pumpkin seeds with some nuts and dried currents, use a spoon and munch away. I do have to deal with the little buggers in my teeth after but nothing floss can’t take care of. Love them and love their health benefits.

    • Michelle

      Yes, dental floss is a handy thing to keep on hand with chia … Though the jelly issue has never been my thing, I made a batch of homemade yogurt over the weekend and my radiator (which doubles as a yogurt maker) was on very very low heat (and I think even went off intermittently during the “culture” period) resulting in the yogurt not thickening as much as usual, so I’ve been adding chia to the too-thin yogurt with wonderful results …

      • StoneMaven

        What a marvelous idea! I think I’ll try them in my morning smoothie.

  • StoneMaven

    I love chia. I put a tablespoon into a quart bottle of water (I re-purpose my husband’s Gatorade bottles) and let it sit overnight in the fridge. I like the cucumber taste and I definitely like how it makes me feel.