We all remember the commercials: Ch-ch-ch-chia! Everyone knew someone who had the chia puppy, the chia dinosaur or the chia Bart Simpson. But what about the seed behind these green, furry novelties?
Chia, a grain that comes from the salvia hispanica plant, has received recent endorsements, with some saying it could become the next power supplement. A number of athletes, doctors and food manufacturers have come forward to encourage people to add some chia to their diet. The Chia Co. website calls chia "nature's complete superfood."
But is it? Some nutritionists have expressed open skepticism about chia's superfood claims.
"The scientific evidence is pretty clear ... that there is no one single food that is the answer to our overall health," said Connie Diekman, a registered dietitian and director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis. "Chia has a nice nutrient package that I'd put in the category with flax seeds and walnuts. Those plant sources are always going to be a part of the answer, but not the answer."
Chia is a part of the family of mint, which grows around the world at latitudes 15 degrees north or south of the equator. The plant is bitter to the taste, so the seeds are often harvested. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, chia seeds contain high amounts of protein, fiber and ALA omega 3s.
Five to 10 years ago, farmer John Foss, owner of the Chia Co., wanted to find the next "it" food that would benefit Australia's growing obesity, diabetes and heart disease population. Today, Foss says chia is doing just that by providing a nutritional upgrade to yogurts, salads and breads.
Some food manufacturers, such as Mary's Gone Crackers and Vega, add chia to pretzels and energy bars and other convenience foods to increase their fiber and essential fatty acid content. For those on a gluten-free diet, some companies claim that chia can help them meet the daily need for fiber, which is often a struggle when living gluten-free.
Because of chia's high amount of fiber, the Chia Co. encourages people to add it to baked goods and snacks. The company sells a white bread that contains chia, which adds 4 to 5 grams of fiber versus the 1 to 2 grams found in many commercial white breads.
But Keith Ayoob, director of the Nutrition Clinic at the Rose R. Kennedy Center at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, agreed with Diekman that we need to be wary of new "it" foods.
"Many companies already add fiber to white bread," said Ayoob. "One easier way to get fiber is just to eat whole wheat bread. Why try to take it all apart and put it back together?
"It's a great grain, yes. Is it a magic bullet? No," said Ayoob. "It's a good high-protein grain. I don't think it's going to solve all the world's obesity problems. Once I hear those claims, I start to raise my antennae."
Still, as far as nutritional content, one could do worse than chia. Like other seeds, chia contains ALA, an omega-3 fatty acid found in plants. While it has beneficial qualities, the body has a harder time digesting and breaking down ALA in the body than EPA, an omega-3 found in fatty fish. Many fans of the seed still recommend eating fatty fish twice a week.
Ayoob agreed, saying that adding chia to the diet should not substitute for getting the same nutrients from other sources. Still, he noted, a little bit of chia in the diet is not a bad thing.
"I'm not ready to say it's a miracle food," said Ayoob. "But it's certainly another tool in the arsenal."