Remember Chia pets, those terra-cotta animals with grass-green fur?
Right, that one.
While the pets are still going strong, chia seeds are being touted as the newest superfood. Ancient Aztec and Inca cultures actually used chia seeds as a diet staple.
Joseph Pedott, president of Joseph Enterprises, the company that owns the Chia Pets line, said he was incredulous when told the nutritional value of chia seeds several decades ago.
Slightly smaller than a sesame seed, chia seeds are grayish brown or off-white and are largely tasteless. Highly hydrophilic, chia seeds can absorb up to 10 times their weight in water, said Ruth Kerr, healthy-eating specialist at Greenlife Grocery.
Runners and endurance athletes, she said, take a gel made from water and chia seeds for hydration, energy and endurance.
"They prolong your hydration, and you retain moisture," she said.
For athletes, Kerr also noted that chia seeds slow down the rate at which the body converts carbohydrates, thus prolonging stamina.
While chia seeds share some benefits with flax seed, another seed being touted as a so-called superfood, energy is not affected by flax, said Ed Jones, owner of Nutrition World on Lee Highway. Jones said he started to see a surge in popularity of chia seeds about a year ago.
Flax seeds need to be ground in order to be fully effective, Kerr said, while chia seeds can be consumed or added to products whole.
In addition to increasing energy, both Jones and Kerr said some people use chia seeds as a weight-loss aid. The high fiber content, 6 grams per serving, or 24 percent of the recommended daily allowance, helps contribute to a feeling of fullness.
"If you eat (a serving of chia seeds), you're not going to be as hungry," Jones said.
Proper fiber intake can help regulate gastrointestinal activity, and has been associated with reducing risks of cancer, heart disease and diverticulitis.
Chia seeds contain 4.5 grams of fat per two tablespoons, but have no saturated- or trans-fats. The American Heart Association reports that polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats may help to lower blood cholesterol levels. Much of the fat in chia seeds comes from omega-3 fatty acids, which are also found in fish oils.
According to the AHA, consumption of fish containing omega-3 fatty acids has been associated with lowering risk of coronary heart disease-related mortality. Omega-3 fatty acids can decrease triglyceride levels and lower risk of arrhythmia. Chia seeds provide the benefits of fish oil, but are appropriate for a vegetarian or vegan diet.
The seeds, which can be sprinkled on cereal or yogurt, or mixed in with nut butters, protein drinks or used as a vegan egg replacement, contain no sodium, cholesterol or sugar, and are low in carbohydrates.
Chia seeds also contain moderate levels of calcium and iron.
Calcium, which promotes healthy bones and teeth, is also needed for muscle function and nerve transmission, according to the National Institutes of Health. Iron is essential for cell growth, and is particularly necessary during pregnancy. According to the NIH, "iron deficiency anemia of pregnancy is responsible for significant morbidity, such as premature deliveries and giving birth to infants with low birth weight."
One serving of chia seeds contains 10 percent of daily recommended value of calcium and 8 percent daily recommended value of iron.
"That's pretty darn good for a tablespoon of something that's of non-meat origin," Jones said.
Recognizing the high nutritional value of the seeds, Joseph Enterprises has begun selling chia seeds and chia gel caps as nutritional supplements. The seeds sold as supplements or foodstuff meet stricter standards than the ones sold along with the terra-cotta animal planters, said Pedott, the latter selection not being recommended for human consumption.
In other words, please don't eat the Chia Pets.
Holly Leber is a reporter and columnist for the Life section. She has worked at the Times Free Press since March 2008. Holly covers “everything but the kitchen sink" when it comes to features: the arts, young adults, classical music, art, fitness, home, gardening and food. She writes the popular and sometimes-controversial column Love and Other Indoor Sports. Holly calls both New York City and Saratoga Springs, NY home. She earned a bachelor of arts ...