Mama chia, here we go again ♫

Now that the requisite ABBA reference is out of the way, it’s time to make good on our promise and share some information about chia seeds.

Chia is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae) that originates from central and southern Mexico. In many parts of the world, it has only recently come to be popular, with this rise in attention being due to its seeds. These little seeds are an incredibly interesting food item as they are one of the richest vegetable sources of omega 3 fatty acids (an essential for our bodies. Remember, the word “fat” does not mean “bad” in all cases!). Besides this, they are also a rich source of polysaccharides that bind to water and thus can be excellent for thickening foods and changing the consistency. Besides this, they are also quite beneficial for our health! Now, let’s dive into some cool information about these super seeds!

The name “chia” is derived from an old Aztec word in the Nahuatl language (the most widespread indigenous language of Mexico) which means “oily.” This plant was heavily cultivated and used by the Aztecs in pre-colonial invasion times.

This annual can grow to a height of 1 meter and has white or purple flowers occurring in clustered inflorescences. The most important part for our purposes though is its seeds, containing as much as 17% omega 3 fatty acids. That being said, if we squeeze the oil from the seeds then we get its content up to 64%! For comparison, linseed oil has “only” 55% of omega 3 fatty acids. Another rich source of omega 3 fatty acids are some fish oils, though these have long-chain acids with 20 or 22 carbon atoms while vegetable sources have only 18. Omega 3 fatty acids are necessary for our diets because we cannot manufacture them ourselves.

 

Dry chia seeds

Nutritional value for 100 g

Energy

490 kcal

2030 kJ

Carbohydrates    

42.12 g 

Fibres

34.4 g

 

Fet

30.74 g 

Saturated

3,33 g

Monounsaturated

2,309 g

Polyunsaturted

23,67 g

Protein

16.54 g 

Vitamine A

54 μg

6%

Thiamine (B1) 

0,62 mg

48%

Riboflavin (B2)  

0,17 mg

11%

Niacin (B3)

8,83 mg

59%

Folates (B9)

49 μg

12%

Vitamine C

1,6 mg

3%

Vitamine E

0,5 mg

3%

Calcium

631 mg

63%

Iron

7,72 mg

62%

Magnezium

335 mg

91%

Phosophorus

123%

Potassium

407 mg

9%

Sodium

16 mg

1%

Zink

4,58 mg

46%

 

In addition to these fatty acids, chia seeds also contain a range of other nutrients. For example, these little seeds contain as much as 34% indigestible fibre! Though some people may try to argue that sawdust contains more fibre, we also need to think of quality! Besides being tastier than sawdust, chia seeds also have a better variety of indigestible fibre. Ultimately, the health benefits of fibres depend on how well they swell in water. Those in chia seeds swell perfectly in water, giving a mucilaginous texture.

The most obvious effect of such excellent fibers is their anti-constipation effects. Chia seeds are a great means of keeping bowels moving properly. Other effects of increased intake of swelling indigestible fibers include reduced blood cholesterol and, consequently, fewer cardiac complications. They also help to slow down starch digestion and can thus help regulate diabetes and certain cancers.

The bulk of the fibres are found in the outer portion of the chia seed, and you can easily notice it when you soak the seeds in water. As it swells, the fibrous content creates a frog egg-like appearance. Since the fibre is on the outside of the seed, it is not necessary to grind the seeds in order to benefit from them.

Due to their chemical properties, eggs are often used in baking, for example to bind dough. People who do not use eggs, however, cannot simply skip over them in the recipe; a replacement is needed in these cases. Fortunately, the mucilage from chia seeds performs this role well, as seen in our pancakes from this week (link). They also work great as a thickener, as we displayed in another previous recipe for fruit pudding (link). Instead of one egg, we use one large spoon (15g) of seeds, which are ground up and soaked in water until they form a thick mucus-like fluid. Some recipes emphasise that ground chia seeds must be separately soaked in water before being added to the dough, but our previous pancake recipe worked just fine with them being added directly to the batter.

Another interesting property of eggs are the proteins that readily hold air bubbles, thus allowing them to be whipped up into a fluffy mass, as in meringue. Chia seeds do not have this property, but water in which chickpeas have been soaked (known as aquafaba) is able to be used in this manner. More on this another day…


Legal assessment on the market

Chia seeds were approved in the European Union in 2009 as a novel food ingredient, and thus were for the first time allowed to be used in bread, up to a content of 5% seeds in the product.

Let’s take a minute to explain the approval of new foods in accordance with European legislation. “New foods” are thus described as foods and food ingredients that were not used on a large scale for human consumption in the EU before 1997. New foods can only be marketed as food once their safety has been adequately demonstrated. If there was a food or ingredient on the market before 1997 then it is not considered a novel food and its use and marketing did not require further safety testing. Items being introduced into European cuisine after 1997 thus have to pass rigorous safety assessments. The competent authorities on this matter deemed chia seeds to be safe to use in quantities as displayed in the table. Though no suspicion of danger has been recorded for higher doses, there is also insufficient data to confirm the safety of chia seeds in larger quantities. This information does not show that chia seeds are unsafe to eat, merely that we know they are safe when consumed in the demonstrated quantities. Nutmeg, for example, is a common household spice that is known to be safe, but too much of it can be toxic. All things in moderation!

 

 

 

Maximum permitted levels

 

Chia oil

Oil mixtures

10 %

Clean chia oil

2 g/day

Food supplements

2 g/day

Chia seeds

Bread

5 % (whole or ground chia seeds)

Bakery products

10 % whole chia seeds

breakfast cereal flakes

10 % whole chia seeds

Fruit, nut and seed mixtures 

10 % whole chia seeds

Fruit juice and drinks from fruit and vegetable mixtures 

15 g/day, if whole or ground chia seeds,

Prepacked chia seeds

15 g/day whole chia seeds

Fruit spreads

1 % whole chia seeds

Yogurt

1,3 g whole chia seeds per 100 g of yogurt or 4,3 g whole chia seeds per 330 g yogurt (portion)

 

 

Let’s end on a funky note: chia has even been found growing in some parts of Europe! in the fall of 2018, a group of botanists discovered as many as 17 sites with chia plants growing in Slovenia. The plants were found growing near river banks and were growing as tall as 2 meters! That being said, they were seen flowering in November, and thus the seeds likely didn’t mature before winter hit and killed the plants, so they probably will not naturally reproduce there. Clearly imported seeds are finding their way into nature.


Additional reading:

European commission’s decision to approve Chia: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/HTML/?uri=CELEX:32013D0050&from=SL

Safety of chia seeds: https://efsa.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.2903/j.efsa.2019.5657

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