Champion chia

Tiny seeds pack big nutritional punch; Co-op class teaches tricks for its use
Chia seeds have gone from novelty to superfood, touted as full of nutrients and adaptable to many recipes, such as these muffins.MCT

The "pudding" that nutrition consultant Tiazza Rose prepares is quicker than any packaged powder.

Soaked chia seeds provide a gelatinous medium for raw chocolate and the natural sweetener stevia to conclude a healthful meal.

How to use chia

Here are some suggestions for using raw chia seeds:

  • Sprinkle over yogurt, oatmeal and cereals.
  • Stir into drinks and smoothies.
  • Toss in mixed greens, rice, pasta or potato salads.
  • Add to muffin and cookie recipes.
  • Make a pudding, stirring the seeds into almond milk (or other dairy, rice or coconut milk).
  • In a clean coffee grinder, grind the seeds into a coarse flour (often called milled chia) and use it in baked goods.
  • Make chia gel — Soak about 2 tablespoons of seeds in 1 cup cool water. The seeds will swell, and mixture will become gelatinous. You can thin gel if too thick. Add gel to water and drink as is. Use the gelatinous mixture as an egg replacer in some recipes (amounts of other liquids in the recipe may need adjustment). Use it as a thickening agent in salad dressing and some sauces and soups.

"The chia pudding is always like the star," says Rose.

Chia's stardom can be summed up for many people in a single phrase: "ch-ch-ch-chia," the television jingle for pet-shaped, terra-cotta planters that sprout furry greens after being slathered with moist chia seeds. Decades later, chia is enjoying new status as a "superfood" for its high levels of fiber, protein and omega-3 fatty acids.

Food companies are capitalizing on chia. Global product launches of foods containing chia were up 78 percent in 2012, according to research firm Mintel. Dole Nutrition Plus launched a line of whole and milled chia and products containing chia.

Rose isn't as enthusiastic as some chia advocates but calls it "a nice mental trick" for adding some nutritional value to foods that might otherwise be lacking. Her first cooking class for weight loss, planned Saturday at Ashland Food Co-op, features chia seeds.

"It's definitely for people who like ... that Jell-O texture, that pudding texture."

In alternative baking methods, chia can be the natural emulsifier that stands in for eggs, often mimicked with food additives like xanthan gum. Much like flaxseed, which can have a very strong flavor, chia also can replace oil. Like any seed, however, chia quickly adds calories, says Rose, adding that she warns against indiscriminately sprinkling it on salads or in smoothies.

"If people just threw it on anything ... then it's too much."

This "high-density food" can benefit athletes in particular, says Rose. She started consuming chia several years ago while training for marathons.

"It will give you that energy," she says. "It holds onto water longer, so it keeps you hydrated."

Instead of soaking whole chia seeds to release their slippery, exterior coating, Rose grinds dry seeds first in a blender, then adds liquid and other ingredients to reap more of chia's nutritional potential.

A flowering plant related to mint, chia is native to Mexico and Central America. Its common name means "strength" in Mayan. The ancient culture, along with the Aztecs, "relied on it to keep their civilization healthy," writes Wayne Coates, author of "Chia: The Complete Guide to the Ultimate Superfood." The book — published last spring by the agricultural engineer and University of Arizona professor emeritus — discusses the history of chia and its health benefits and includes plenty of recipes.

"It's not a supplement and is a food in the FDA's eyes," says Coates. "Which means you can consume as much as you like."

Although chia has a long shelf life and does not go rancid like many other types of seeds, Coates urges consumers to be choosy when shopping for chia, available at health-food stores and in grocers' bulk sections. "Chia is only black or white," he says. "If there is brown, it is not good, and it can mean the seeds are immature."

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or email McClatchy News Service contributed to this story.

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