Essential Fatty Acids — EFAs — are one of the hottest trends in health, spurring skyrocketing sales of fish oils, flaxseeds and numerous products that deliver the oils our bodies need, but can't make. Now an ancient seed that is perhaps best known as a 1980s novelty gift is making a comeback, and not because it will grow hair on a pet.

Essential Fatty Acids — EFAs — are one of the hottest trends in health, spurring skyrocketing sales of fish oils, flaxseeds and numerous products that deliver the oils our bodies need, but can't make. Now an ancient seed that is perhaps best known as a 1980s novelty gift is making a comeback, and not because it will grow hair on a pet.

Chia seeds come from a weed that grows in the deserts of Mexico. New research from the University of Toronto shows the seeds, rich in EFAs, may lower the risk of heart disease for diabetes patients.

"We had people ask about them, then we read that they're full of omega-3s and as good as flax seeds," says Terry Johnson, manager of the natural foods department at Food-4-Less in Medford.

Among the chia products at Food-4-Less are an instant hot cereal flavored with apples or strawberries, and chia-seed breakfast bars, Johnson says.

Sold in health food stores for decades, the tiny black seeds of the chia plant (Salvia Hispanica L.) have long been used as an energy booster, but results of a medical study by University of Toronto researchers have prompted a resurgence in sales.

Oil from chia seeds is one of the richest sources of omega-3 fatty acids — even better than flaxseeds — and is a great source of dietary fiber, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, manganese, copper, niacin and zinc, according to a recent article in Prevention magazine written by alternative medicine author Dr. Andrew Weil.

Omega-3s are unsaturated fatty acids, essential oils that help absorb critical vitamins, enhance oxygen flow to organ tissues, regulate normal glandular activity and reduce harmful cholesterol.

In the Toronto study, Type 2 diabetes patients whose diets were supplemented by chia seeds for 12 weeks experienced a reduction in blood pressure and in inflammation indicators. Both are implicated in cardiovascular disease.

Because the seeds absorb many times their weight in water and are high in soluble fiber, carbohydrates are released slowly into the bloodstream as chia seeds are digested, reducing cravings.

The use of chia seeds to enhance endurance goes back to antiquity. Documents surviving the Spanish conquest of Mexico indicate that Aztec warriors ran for days eating nothing but chia seeds, and ate them during battles. The word "chia" means strength in the Maya language.

In modern times, the chia-endurance connection was popularized by fitness and nutrition pioneer Paul Bragg. In 1997, a 43-year-old Tarahumara Indian from Mexico named Cirildo Chacarito Gonzalez won the 100-mile Angeles Crest Endurance Run in California. His diet before and during the race supposedly consisted only of chia seeds.

Now that chia seeds have been found to contain high levels of EFAs, the seeds are hot again.

"I've seen an increase in demand for chia seeds in my customers, especially from those on raw foods diets," says Greg Askins, who with his wife, Heather, owns Health Food Mart in Medford.

The most popular ways to eat the seeds, according to Askins, are to add a tablespoon or two to beverages or to sprinkle them on breakfast cereal.

When purchased in bulk, the seeds retail for $11-$12 per pound locally.

Even Oprah Winfrey has jumped on the chia bandwagon, recently eating a pumpkin-chia muffin on her television show.

Just don't try to eat your Chia Pet.

Those faddish animal figurines from the 1980s whose hair is made of sprouted chia seeds belong in the garage, not the kitchen.

Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Reach him at dnewberry@jeffnet.com