Those who think of clay animals sprouting “green hair” know only the surface value of chia seed, which is now proving its worth as a potential food of the future.
Back in 1977, a marketer named Joe Pedott trademarked a novelty item he called “Chia Pets.” When moistened seeds of chia (Salvia hispanica) are applied to the grooved terracotta figurine of a ram, turtle, pig, puppy or kitten, they quickly spout into what looks like a verdant coat of fur.
Chia Pets quickly became a fad across the USA, and by 2007, some 500,000 of them were being sold annually, primarily during the year-end holiday season.
What Pedott and most of his customers never knew was that for centuries the seed had been treasured in the American southwest and Mexico for its tremendous nutritional value and medicinal properties.
Referred to as a “running food,” Aztec warriors subsisted on the seed during conquests. As little as a teaspoon full was sufficient to fill a warrior’s stomach when going on a 24-hour forced march.
Tribes of the Old Southwest would eat it en route from the Colorado River to the California coast, where they traded turquoise for seashells. Chia seed was the only nourishment they brought along on such journeys.
Is chia seed really a high-energy endurance super food ? The proof is quite dramatic.
When mixed with water, the seed transforms into a gelatin-like substance, caused by its high soluble fiber content. In fact, the hydrophilic properties of chia seed allow it to absorb more than 12 times its own weight in water.
For an Aztec warrior, that meant his stomach felt full. It also increased his ability to retain water, thus prolonging hydration as he ran long distances.
What’s more, the gel-forming activity in the stomach creates a physical barrier between carbohydrates and digestive enzymes that would break them down. In effect, chia seed slows the conversion of carbohydrates into sugar, diminishes blood sugar surges and lows, and extends the duration of carbs’ fueling effects.
This last property is of great interest to current researchers, who see chia seed as a potential “wonder snack” for diabetics. Prolonging the conversion of carbs into sugar may stabilize metabolic changes in their bodies.
But that’s just the beginning. Chia seed is nourishing, too. It is a rich source of essential Omega-3 oil, calcium and vitamins, A, B complex, D, E and K. It is has a half to two times the concentration of protein found in other grains. And it contains the unsaturated fatty acid known as linoleic, which the body can not manufacture but uses to digest soluble fats.
As a result, other applications being researched for chia seed are numerous indeed—as a diet food, a digestive aid, a muscle and tissue builder, and an energy supplement for athletes.
Of course, it can still grow “green fur” on clay animals, too, but chances are good that generations to come will be singing “ch-ch-ch-chia” for very different reasons.
Alfablue, December 2011