Chia: The Super Seed Star of the Aztecs

Imagine running on jungle footpaths and across dessert plains all day long in the heat, but not stopping to eat or even rehydrate except for consuming a gel made from a little seed ground up in water. Or fighting a battle with the endurance to outlast hand-to-hand combat all day long and ultimately prove which group of warriors was strongest. This is the story of the Aztecs and their reverence for a small seed that was a staple of their diet: chia.

Chia seeds are tiny, come in mixed colors of black, grey and white, and have extraordinary nutritional properties that elevate them above all other plant foods. Chia, Salvia hispanica, is a type of sage and a member of the mint family. Its tall flowering spikes ultimately produce hundreds of seeds per plant.

Chia seeds are native to the Valley of Central Mexico, where Mexico City is now located, and were first cultivated along with corn, amaranth, pumpkin, beans, squash and chile beginning in 3400 B.C. The subsequent rise of developed cultures dominated by tribes like the Teotihuacan and Toltecs between 2600 and 2000 B.C. grew chia prior to the arrival of the Aztecs. The sophisticated cultivation methods developed by the Aztecs produced enough of their 4 stable crops, chia, corn, beans and amaranth, to feed a population of around 11 million people.

Chia was a stable nutrient-dense food, a cash crop paid as tribute by conquered tribes, and a ceremonial offering in religious rites. Its numerous uses for everything from food and medicine to cosmetics and paint varnishes made chia an essential part of the rise and success of the Aztec civilization.

Chia’s Superior Nutritional Profile

ALA Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids: Omega-3 essential fatty acids are “essential” because our bodies can’t produce them so they must be consumed. They are required as precursors to a cascade of hormonal compounds that are part of numerous functions that maintain the health of the cardiovascular, central nervous, and immune systems. Additionally, they are essential to optimal mental health and the growth of the brain in newborns.

Our modern diet is full of oils made from vegetable sources like corn, soy, canola, safflower and sunflower. These oils are very high in another type of essential fatty acids called omega-6. It is necessary to keep a balanced ratio between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, but unfortunately, most people over-consume omega-6 and are deficient in omega-3. This imbalance has been identified as one of the major causes of the rise of inflammatory diseases like immune disorders, cancer, heart disease, and neurodegenerative conditions.

“ALA” stands for alpha-linolenic acid, which is metabolized in the body to become DHA, docosahexaenoic acid, and EPA, eicosapentaenoic acid. DHA and EPA have been extensively studied in the last few decades and the results of these studies have caused health professionals to recommend including more fish, especially wild salmon, in your diet.

If you eat fish or take fish oil capsules, DHA and EPA are part to these oils because they have already been metabolized by the fish from ALA, which fish consume in algae. However, your body can also convert ALA into both of these compounds as has been demonstrated in a number of studies that examine human blood levels of these compounds after eating vegetative sources of ALA.

Eating omega-3 fatty acids from vegetative origins is an important alternative to eating it from marine sources which may be contaminated with pollutants and have problems with rancidity. In the long run, vegetative sources of omega-3 may also be more sustainable than fish sources. Vegetarians, whose only source of ALA is from vegetative sources, have no deficiencies in either EPA or DHA if they eat sufficient quantities of foods with ALA.

Chia contains the highest levels of ALA of any plant food for humans. The next highest food source is flax seeds which is why both seeds are included in TeeChia. TeeChia provides 1100mg of ALA omega-3 fatty acids per serving. Although the FDA has yet to set a recommendation daily dosage for omega-3 fatty acids, the World Health Organization has set the optimal dose at 800 – 1100 mg per day so your bowl of TeeChia will provide as much as you need of these essential fatty acids on a daily basis.

High Fiber Content with Unique Soluble Fiber: Chia contains a very high percentage of fiber compared to other edible plants and its soluble fiber is unique. 31-35% of chia is fiber compared to other nuts, seeds and grains, which typically contain around 8-12% fiber. Only flax seeds come close to the amount of chia’s fiber content with 27-29% fiber.

The unique quality of chia’s soluble fiber is responsible for so many of chia’s beneficial effects on digestion. The soluble fiber is immediately visible if you soak chia seeds in water. A viscous gel, also called a mucilage, begins to form immediately around the whole seed. Chia’s soluble fiber has a heavier molecular weight than other soluble fibers from grains, which makes its viscosity denser. Chia can absorb water as much as 9-12 times its weight which helps maintain hydration and satiety. Its gel is responsible for producing a number of health benefits.

What does this mean to your digestion? It means that the gel formed by soaking chia before eating will create a bulk in your intestines that holds water, slows the absorption of glucose from carbohydrates, reduces cholesterol by binding it, and produces a softer stool that is easy to eliminate. This gel is the secret to chia’s effect on appetite, producing satiety or a satisfying sense of fullness, so you don’t need to eat for an extended period of time. It is also the reason why chia has developed a reputation as a weight loss food.

Protein: Chia contains between 19-23% protein, which is higher than cereals like wheat, corn, rice, barley and oats and comparable to nuts like walnuts and almonds. It has all the essential amino acids including a high percentage of lysine, which is often in low quantities or completely absent among plant protein sources. Chia is considered a complete protein like soy.

Antioxidants: Chia has been tested by a number of analytical methods and the results show it has a very high antioxidant content. The antioxidants in chia are the reason why it is possible to grind chia seeds and keep them for an extended period of time without any rancidity of its oil developing. The antioxidants preserve the omega-3 fatty acids.

Black chia seeds are higher in antioxidants than white chia seeds which is to be expected as antioxidant content is associated with dark coloration in plants. Chia is comparable to blueberries in the ORAC scoring system of antioxidants.

Chia’s antioxidants include the flavonoids quercetin, myricetin, and kaempferol plus chlorogenic acid and caffeic acid. All of them have been studied for their antioxidant capacities in humans and have shown stronger free radical scavenging abilities than vitamin C and E. Studies show that flavonoids have the ability to enhance the effectiveness of vitamin C and to prolong its life.

Vitamins and minerals: Chia is a good source of B vitamins, especially niacin. It is very rich in minerals including calcium, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, iron, zinc and copper.

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