Most of us have had the dubious pleasure of receiving a Chia Pet as a “gift” at one time or another. These odd-looking clay figurines grew miraculous thick, green, curly “hair” from hundreds of tiny chia seeds when the clay had been moistened for several days. 

The seeds stayed moist and sprouted quickly, in large part due to their hydrophilic nature. Chia seeds can absorb and retain up to 27 times their weight in water. 

For the majority of gift recipients, the fun died quickly, as did the Chia Pet’s hair. There seemed to be no point in trying to maintain the green locks beyond a few days. However, an expanding interest in chia seeds just may have us all trying to grow Chia Pets.

BACKGROUND

Today’s market for the nutritious chia seed would probably come as absolutely no surprise to the ancient peoples of southern Mexico and Central America. Civilizations such as those of the Aztec and Mayan Indians grew chia as a dietary staple.


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Unless otherwise specified, the term “chia” usually refers to the chia species Salvia hispanica.1 S. hispanica is a rapidly growing biennial plant well-suited to arid climates and poor, sandy soil.1 Growing to a height of about 36 inches, the plant flowers in long clusters of deep blue and purple. The tiny seeds measure no more than 2 mm and are usually brown or black.

One chia plant can produce thousands of seeds. These seeds are composed of up to 40% oil, with the remaining structure high in protein and fiber. In today’s use of chia, it is the oil that is of particular interest.

SCIENCE

Nutritionally, chia seed oil is more than 60% alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).2 This makes chia oil one of the highest in composition of this rich omega-3 fatty acid among all oil-bearing seeds. Research involving both chia seeds and chia oil verified that plasma ALA levels increased up to 91% at 2.5 hours postingestion and stayed elevated for nearly 24 hours.

The role of omega-3 fatty acids in human health has been debated for many years. Even though the necessity of these compounds for health and well-being has never been disputed, the optimal recommended amount in daily foods and supplements is not as clear.

Unlike some other oil-bearing seeds, chia seeds do not require grinding for their oils to be released.4 This characteristic makes them a more appealing ingredient in health-food snacks and cereals. A quarter-cup of chia seeds contains approximately 8 mg of iron and 10 g of fiber. 

Chia seeds are being studied as a weight-modifying food. In one study of 62 overweight women (BMI 25 or higher), the participants were randomized to consume either 25 g/day of chia seeds or placebo for a period of 10 weeks.5 Although plasma ALA levels increased significantly in the chia-seed group, these individuals had no statistically significant weight loss or change in body-fat percentage.

In a different trial, some participants were fed muffins made with chia seeds, while other participants ate chia-free muffins.6 When asked to rate their levels of satiety periodically over the next 90 minutes, persons who consumed the chia seed muffins consistently rated their satiety levels higher than did those who ate the regular muffins.

A different group of researchers evaluated specified dietary patterns abundant in chia seeds and the effect on multiple factors comprising the condition of metabolic syndrome.7 At the end of the 2-month, placebo-controlled trial, all participants had reductions in body weight and waist circumference, but only the dietary study group had decreases in serum triglycerides, C-reactive protein, and glucose levels.

Another very common condition—pruritus in end-stage renal disease (ESRD)—was shown to be successfully managed with chia seed oil in a small study.8 As the investigators noted, an estimated 40% to 80% of persons with ESRD suffer from chronically dry and itchy skin, with typical emollient lotions offering slight relief.

The researchers evaluated five healthy individuals with xerotic pruritus and five persons with ESRD who complained of severe itching due to ESRD or diabetes. Participants used a topical formulation containing 4% chia seed oils daily for 8 weeks and rated their symptom relief according to a standardized scale. 

The ESRD group reported statistically significant improvement in pruritus and dryness at the end of the trial; the healthy volunteers demonstrated similar improvements. None of the participants suffered any adverse events.

SAFETY, HOW SUPPLIED

Chia seeds are available in a wide variety of forms, including but not limited to whole seeds, oil, “chia snacks,” chia oil, and chia meal. The seeds are on the FDA’s “generally regarded as safe” (GRAS) listing; however, persons with allergic histories should initially consume these products with caution.

COST, DOSE

The cost of chia seed products is almost as varied as the range of products. In bulk, chia seeds average about $6 per pound. The appropriate dose of chia products depends on the intent of use. There is no standardized recommended dose, but a typical serving of seeds or ground seed is a quarter-cup.

SUMMARY

Very seldom does a product with very little downside surface. In the case of chia seeds, there seems to be mostly good news, without any bad news. As long as patients are counseled regarding the always present potential for allergy, chia seed compounds represent a healthy and tasty way to boost beneficial fatty acids and fiber.

Sherril Sego, FNP-C, DNP, is a staff clinician at the VA Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., where she practices adult medicine and women’s health. She also teaches at the nursing schools of the University of Missouri and the University of Kansas.

References

  1. Small E. Blossoming treasures of biodiversity. 34. Chia—not just a pet. Biodiversity. 2011;12(1):49-56. Available at www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/14888386.2011.575104.
  2. Mohd Ali N, Yeap SK, Ho WY, et al. The promising future of chia, Salvia hispanica L. J Biomed Biotechnol. 2012;2012:171956. Available at www.hindawi.com/journals/bmri/2012/171956.
  3. Nieman DC, Gillitt ND, Knab AM, et al. Fatty acid bioavailability study of single oral doses of milled chia seed snack clusters or chia seed oil in healthy subjects. The FASEB Journal. 2013;27:125.5
  4. Ho H, Lee AS, Jovanovski E, et al. Effect of whole and ground Salba seeds (Salvia Hispanica L.) on postprandial glycemia in healthy volunteers: a randomized controlled, dose-response trial. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2013;67(7):786-788.
  5. Nieman DC, Gillitt N, Jin F, et al. Chia seed supplementation and disease risk factors in overweight women: a metabolomics investigation. J Altern Complement Med. 2012;18(7):700-708.
  6. 6. Balakrishnan G. Influence of chia seeds on satiety. Thesis (M.S.)—University of Florida; 2012. Available at ufdc.ufl.edu/UFE0044269/00001.
  7. Muñoz LA, Cobos A, Diaz O, Aguilera JM. Chia seed (Salvia hispanica): an ancient grain and a new functional food. Food Reviews International. 2013;29(4):394-408.
  8. Jeong SK, Park HJ, Park BD, Kim IH. Effectiveness of topical chia seed oil on pruritus of end-stage renal disease (ESRD) patients and healthy volunteers. Ann Dermatol. 2010;22(2):143-148. Available at pdf.medrang.co.kr/Aod/022/Aod022-02-03.pdf.

All electronic documents accessed June 9, 2014.