Curious about chia? Here's what you need to know

Chia seeds

Chia seeds (Credit: Chia seeds)

Whether you're looking for increased energy, weight management, a unique cocktail additive or a hangover helper, your search ends with chia.

Once a diet staple in Aztec and Mayan cultures, this ancient seed, which delivers omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, fiber, protein and calcium, is making waves in the modern day. While it's been available in bulk at health food stores for years, it recently moved from the health food community to the mainstream, with chia-based products cropping up not just in Whole Foods but also in big box stores and corner bodegas.

Janie Hoffman, the founder and CEO of Mamma Chia, a San Diego-based company that produces chia beverages and squeezes that are sold nation-wide, touted the virtues of this super food, which she credits with clearing up health issues she struggled with for decades.

"It's truly the most nutrient dense food on our planet," she said. "It really does deliver."

Chia seeds, which resemble sesame seeds in their size and color, have more protein than rice, oat and wheat and more heart protective omega-3 fatty acids than any other plant-based food. They're gluten free, mild in flavor, easily digested and relatively low in calories, with about 70 calories per tablespoon.

But what really sets them apart from other seeds, like flax and hemp, is their gelatinous coating, which creates an instant thickener or pudding when combined with liquid, making those who eat it feel full for longer.

But is the chia hype just … hype? Kelly Dupuis, a healthy eating specialist at Whole Foods Columbus Circle and Union Square says that no, they're the real deal, ranking "way up there" in terms of healthiness compared to other foods.

However, she stops short of using the term "superfood" to describe them -- or any other food -- but says they are in good company with other whole, plant-based foods like kale and blueberries, and are certainly "super."

Chia novices looking to add the seed to their diets have a couple of options, one of which is buying a ready-made chia beverage or snack. With 120 calories and nine flavors, like blackberry hibiscus and coconut mango, Mamma Chia beverages can be found all over the New York metro area including Whole Foods, Fairway and Gristedes, where they retail for $4.99. Fresh Direct will start carrying the vitality beverages and 70 calorie squeezes soon, too.

Another option is Chia Pods, ready-serve chia puddings released in July with just three ingredients and four flavors. With 130 to 164 calories, they're available along with The Chia Co. seeds at about 150 New York City stores, and retail for $3.29, said Melissa Kruse, a public relations coordinator for The Chia Co.

Purchasing chia seeds in bulk and adding them to yogurt, smoothies, salads and cereal is a cheaper and easier way to incorporate them into a diet.

Because they're so mild in flavor, they can also be added to baked goods, like granola and muffins, or used as a thickener in place of an egg in a vegetarian or vegan dish, said Frances Largeman-Roth, a nutrition expert and author.

She recommends adding about one to two tablespoons of chia to yogurt or smoothies, about ¼ cup if added to a dry muffin mix, and ¼ cup of seeds mixed with 2 cups of water before allowing to stand for 15 to 30 minutes if using as a thickening agent in a sauce or soup.

But before you start experimenting, heed Largeman-Roth's practical advice:

"Always check your teeth afterward," she said, "because they will get stuck."

Tags: HEALTH , SUPERFOOD , CHIA , ARTICLE , AMNY , HOLD

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