We’ve all heard of chia. During the 80’s and 90’s Chia Pets were a nearly ubiquitous novelty product, little terra cotta shapes that sprouted fast-growing plants as hair or fur and came complete with a catchy, meaningless ear-worm of a jingle. However, what fewer of us know (though awareness is growing) is that chia, also known as salvia hispanica, is good for a lot more than coating goofy cartoon sheep in a thick green coat – this member of the mint family is edible, tasty, and a great source of fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. Native to Mexico and Guatemala, it turns out that chia was a staple food of the Aztec cultures in Central Mexico.
I’d first heard of the benefits of chia seeds from a friend’s blog about this wondrous little seed, but to be perfectly frank, the method of consuming them seemed a little unappealing. Chia is hydrophilic, meaning water-loving – it sucks up as much h2o as it can get its tiny, non-existent hands on. This plumps up little fibers, called mucilages, in the seed, which coat it in a thick, gel covering – the end result looks uncannily like very tiny frog eggs.
So, put the seeds in water and get slimy frog eggs – check. What then? Well, the unappealing bit is that you are then supposed to drink the frog eggs, lustily swallowing the entire slimy mass. Gross, right? And yet, the more I read about chia, the more intrigued I became, particularly after reading Born to Run, a book I found particularly inspiring during my marathon training. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s the story of a group of folks racing through the Mexican desert for 50 miles, a group that mixed American distance runners with the Raramuri, a tribe indigenous to the region, known for their ability to run forever as though it were nothing. One of their trade secrets is chia fresca, a gooey combination of chia seeds, water, fruit juice and a bit of sweetener. In the legends, they can go for miles on just this and a bit of pinole.
While the legends are a bit exaggerated, as legends usually are, there turns out to be a bit of truth to them. That hydrophilic gel that the chia forms helps to keep water in your system longer – maxmizing the hydration potential of the water that you’re drinking. In addition, the little seeds are so packed with vitamins and nutrition that they are a surprisingly powerful source of fuel for their size. So, despite my reservations, I decided to give it a try.
After mixing it all up, I waited a few minutes for the seeds to absorb the water. Sure enough, they began to plump up with a thick, clear coating. Putting aside my fears of all things gelatinous, I took a sip.
To my surprise, I really enjoyed it! The seeds are sticky but crunchy at the same time, providing a weirdly appealing texture. As for maximizing my running performance I cannot exactly say, but I do find that I feel full longer if I have chia with my morning breakfast, and if nothing else I’m getting the equivalent of some sort of omega-3 dietary supplement.
If the idea of the squishyness still bugs you, there are other ways to enjoy chia. Some vegans take advantage of the gel quality to make “pudding” with it, other people avoid the stickiness altogether by pouring the dry seeds over salads or into baked goods. One thing I’ve really come to enjoy is mixing them into a smoothie.
This one is made with banana, frozen blueberries, some yogurt, some lowfat milk, and the chia. With the thickness of the banana and the yogurt the jelly of the chia just kind of blends right in.
Wonder food, staple, or novelty planter, chia is pretty fascinating stuff!