Wednesday, February 24, 2010

chi chi chi chia

when i was in costa rica in december i was hiking to a waterfall and noticed a tall flowering plant that drew my attention. having a great interest in plants, i started to look at the plant and was able to conclude it was from the mint family, but i wasn't exactly sure what it was. i asked a costa rican woman i was with what it was. my spanish is not great, but i was able to make out that costa ricans use the seeds in beverages. She called the plant "chan." later i asked an american herbalist living in costa rica what the plant was and she told me the natives call it chan and that the seeds are mixed with water and sugar to make a beverage.

the very next day i saw the beverage at a restaurant and ordered it. it was delicious. the tiny seeds were mucilaginous and so fun to slide around in my mouth. i was sure that the beverage was probably good for digestion given the mucousy texture, but what i hadn't yet connected was that the seed and plant i was enjoying was chia! and what i have since learned is that the beverage is enjoyed in many parts of central america and widely popular in mexico where it is called chia fresca. and yes, it's the same seed found in chia pets!

i've been familiar with chia as a flax substitiute and source of omega 3 fatty acids for many years, but drinking chan in costa rica has renewed my interest in this tiny little seed. what makes chia interesting to me is that it is much more stable than flax seed and therefore enjoys a longer shelf life. what many people don't know is that flax seed only has a shelf life of about 3 months -- possibly a little longer if it is refrigerated or frozen. and that's if the flax was purchased as fresh as possible. when flax is ground and stored, the shelf life and stability decreases even more. chia seeds seem to have even more health benefits than flax and some say they have a shelf life of up to 5 years, although i would recommend consuming chia within a year. in addition to being a highly concentrated source of omega 3's, chia seeds contain 19 amino acids including all the essential amino acids minus taurine. unlike flax, chia seeds do not need to be ground up and can be eaten and digested whole. chia seeds are said to have 2 times the protein of any other seed or grain, 5 times the calcium of milk, 2 times the amount of potassium as bananas, 3 times the reported antioxidant strength of blueberries and 3 times more iron than spinach, in addition to the fantastic amounts of omega 3. and let's not forget the potential source of fiber these seeds offer!

many people recommend hydrating chia seeds and eating them as a gel. you can spoon this gel onto oatmeal, into smoothies, eat the gel as is in unlimited quantities, make a pudding out of it and the list goes on. the recommended water to seed ratio is 2 oz (about 1/3 cup) of seed to 2 cups of water. mix, stir and let sit for a few hours and then begin to consume. it will keep for up to 2 weeks in the fridge and the gel can be made with whole or ground seeds. and because chia are water loving and absorb water well, the gel is very hydrating to the body. the seeds can also be consumed whole or ground on salads, in juices, on yogurt etc. etc. chia are particularly great in smoothies because they thicken smoothies in the same way that protein powders would without all the unpronounceable ingredients that are in protein powder.

this little blog only scratches the surface of the potential that chia seeds have as an addition to the diet. i encourage you to read and research for yourself. meanwhile, here's a "pudding" recipe i found on a forum that you might enjoy as your first chia adventure:

3 cups water
1 to 2 inches of ginger
blend and add 5-8 brazil nuts or a handful of cashews or almonds
blend again
add 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp vanilla
1-2 tblsp agave
1/4 cup ground coconut
1/4 cup chia
blend and let sit a minute and blend again -- do this a few times
let sit a few hours and then eat

special thanks to margaret conover for the great photo! check out her website:



  1. Chia and chan are in the same family but they are different. Chia is high in Omega 3 and Chan is high in Omega 6. You difinitely want to increase your Omega 3, NOT your Omega 6.
    The difference between chia and chan: (look at the bottom at Varieties of chia.
    The Latin American plant CHAN (“Hyptis suaveolens L.”) contains approximately 77-80% linoleic acid (omega-6), but offers little or no linolenic acid (omega-3).
    This means chan is not a balanced source of essential fatty acids. Moreover, chan’s total oil yield is low compared to other commercial oil crops, including CHIA (Salvia hispanica L.).
    In contrast to chan, chia seeds contain both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in a very favorable ratio. In fact, chia provides up to 60% linolenic acid (omega-3) and a total oil content as high as 39%. Very impressive for a tiny seed.
    Nutritionists for years have touted the benefits of omega-3s. However, a real benefit of chia is that it offers balanced omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, because both types of fats are required for our health. While Western diets lack omega-3s, overcompensating for this lack by overconsuming omega-3 relative to omega-6 creates its own health challenges. We need both types of fats.
    There is consequently no comparison between chia and chan, at least not in terms of suitability as a balanced source of essential fats.
    Chia wins this contest hands down. Balanced essential fats are just one more reason individuals interested in good health are consuming more chia seeds — especially organic chia seeds — and why chia is finally gaining much deserved recognition as a superstar among superfoods.

  2. There is a place for both Chan and Chia in my diet. And while Chia is considered a complete protein, with omega 3's, Chan is "almost" a complete protein in that it has all of the essential amino acids except lysine. One study called Chan a pseudo-cereal. Both are hydroscopic, they carry a lot of water, and both are high in fiber. For me, it is great that they store for a long time, and there is no need for cooking. Very easy to add into my diet. It is very obscure for me to say this, but both of these seeds were used as foods in the Americas forever. And in some places in Mexico, Chan is known as "large chia". So, maybe that's why we still confuse them today. I have been interested in foods from the Americas for a long time. The chia that is available in the stores is Salvia hispanica. In California there are 2 other chias used as food, Salvia columbariae, and Salvia carduacea. In Chihuahua, Mexico there live Tarahumara people, who are tremendous runners. They eat Salvia tiliifolia. (By the way, I saw a really cute youTube video of some tourists drinking chan with a straw. The seeds float around in the drink).