What is all the Fuss About Chia Seeds?

The truth about the latest seed craze

Chia seeds seem to be one of the hottest health "products" at the moment and people are being led to believe that they are the best of all the seeds available, and can work miracles in the body. Let's look at the facts.

What's in Chia seeds that make them so wonderful? 

Chia seeds are full of omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs); in fact they have the most omega-3s of any of the seeds, with 12% more than flax seeds. However that's not where the story ends. They have very little omega-6, and regardless of what you may have read or heard, your body requires both omega-3 and omega-6 in the right ratio. Chia seeds also contain calcium and magnesium.

However, if you only consume omega-3, say from chia seeds, your body becomes unbalanced in these unique EFAs and then you will suffer from an omega-6 deficiency. The reason these two EFAs are called essential is because you have to get them from your diet – your body cannot synthesize them as it can with saturated fats and monounsaturated fats. So if you don't get them from your diet, you'll be deficient.

Which is why you cannot rely on chia seeds for your entire omega needs – just as you can' t rely on flax seeds or flax oil either, although they contain the second highest amount of omega-3.

Can seeds give you enough of any EFA?

Consuming seeds only, whether from chia or from flax, will not give you the amounts of omega-3 that you need, unless you eat vast quantities, and crush them first, as it's hard to obtain optimum amounts of both omega-3 and omega-6 from seeds alone. This is why it's better to use a balanced oil blend that contains both omega-3 and omega-6, from certified organic seeds, and in the right ratio.

 EFAs hate the elements

The other important thing to keep in mind is that these essential fats dislike light, heat and oxygen and become damaged when they are exposed to these elements. So, if you don't know how chia seeds have been stored after picking, you may inadvertently be consuming damaged fat molecules, which won't do you any good.

Furthermore, in most stores they are kept on the shelf, not in the fridge, so they could suffer from further degradation there. Unfortunately, this issue is overlooked, as most people aren't aware of the delicate nature of these special fats in omega-3 and omega-6 seeds and oils.

What about pesticides?

Pesticides accumulate in fats, so if the chia seeds aren't organic you may also be exposed to this danger. This also applies to flax seeds – in fact, any nuts or seeds, if not organic, will contain pesticides. And pesticides are to be avoided as they interfere with central nervous system (CNS) functioning and disturb the endocrine system, which is responsible for keeping our hormones working in tip-top condition.

What about baking with essential seeds?

As these seeds are very delicate, and become damaged when exposed to light, heat and oxygen, baking with them, and using them in breads, cookies, baked cereals and other cooked products will of course damage them too.

It should go without saying that purchasing ground-up chia seeds is not a good idea, for the reasons discussed so far.

How much omega-3 can you get out of seeds that are not crushed?

Seeds (and nuts) are encased in a hard outer covering, to protect them from the oxidative damage that would occur to their precious oily insides, should they be exposed to light, heat and oxygen. This means that simply swallowing them whole will not provide the necessary nutrients (in this case the EFAs) that are required. One therefore has to crush the seeds to obtain the nutrients inside.

A specific test* was conducted on Chia seeds to compare how much true metabolizable energy is available when they are crushed vs. when they are left whole. These results are also an indication of how much EFA is present when they are in either of these forms. When they are crushed they provide 4,089 kilocalories per kilogram of energy, while uncrushed and whole they only provide 693 kilocalories. This is a significant difference, especially if you are relying on these seeds to provide all your omega-3 requirements. They simply cannot provide all your EFA needs if they are whole, and buying them crushed exposes them to oxidation.

In conclusion

If you find chia seeds that are organic, haven't been exposed to excessive quantities of light, heat or oxygen, and are stored in the refrigerator, then use them in moderation, sprinkled over your salads, or into your smoothies.

Enjoy them in a glass of water, after soaking overnight, if your digestive system needs a little clean-out, although you may have to eat them with a spoon as they swell up.

Don't consume chia seeds in isolation from your other seeds, and definitely don't rely on them to meet your needs for EFAs. They are healthy if organic, but they are not the "magic" solution to all ills, and they will not supply all the EFAs that are required for optimal health in a balanced form.

 References

*Ayerza R, Coates W. Chia – rediscovering a forgotten crop of the Aztecs. USA: University of Arizona Press; 2005. 

Erasmus U. Fats that heal, fats that kill. Burnaby BC, Canada: Alive Books;1993.

Hibbeln JR, et al. Healthy intakes of n-3 and n-6 fatty acids: estimations considering world-wide diversity. Am J Clin Nutr 2006 Jun; 83(6 Suppl): 1483S-1493S.

Nieman DC, et al. Chia seed does not promote weight loss or alter disease risk factors in overweight adults. Nutr Res 2009 Jun; 29(6): 414-8.