Scientific Name: Salvia hispanica
Salvia hispanica, commonly known as Chia, is an erect, branched herb with bright green, ovate, pointed leaves that can grow up to 1.2m x 0.4m. In summer, blue flowers are produced in dense racemes at the end of each stem. The flowers are hermaphrodite (have both male and female organs). Salvia hispanica is adaptable to most well drained soils and prefers a protected, sunny position. It is frost tender but drought resistant and is grown as an annual or biennial, depending on climate. It needs a long summer to have enough time for the seed to mature.
Salvia hispanica is native to central and southern Mexico and Guatemala. It is an ancient grain that was once the staple of the Aztec diet in pre-Colombian times. Salvia hispanica was their third most important crop after maize and beans just ahead of amaranth. It was highly valued and used as tribute and taxes to pay the Aztec priesthood and nobility. According to historians, the cultivation of Salvia hispanica ended with the fall of the Aztec civilization - however, it was rediscovered in the late 1900s.
Today Salvia hispanica is grown commercially for its extremely nutritious seeds — it is a high protein, high energy food with enzyme action (aiding in food digestion). Salvia hispanica seed typically contains 20% protein, 34% oil, 25% dietary fibre (mostly soluble with high molecular weight), amino acids and significant levels of antioxidants (chlorogenic and caffeic acids, myricetin, quercetin, and kaempferol flavonols). The oil is very rich in omega-3, 6 and 9 essential fatty acids — the same Omega 3 fats that are found in ocean fish and eggs. The seeds yield 25-30% extractable oil, mostly α-linolenic acid (ALA).
Chia seeds contain no gluten or trace levels of sodium.
The word chia is derived from the Nahuatl word chian, meaning oily.
Chia seeds are oval shaped with a diameter of about 1 mm. They are mottle-coloured with brown, gray, black and white. All colours are considered equally nutritious.
Today Salvia hispanica is grown in Mexico, Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador and Guatemala. In 2008, Australia was the world's largest producer of chia. Chia was unknown in Europe until 2009 when the European Union approved Salvia hispanica seeds as a novel food.
Harvest and parts used
Seeds, oil and leaves.
Seeds can be eaten raw (just like sunflower seeds and nuts) or used in baking by sprinkling them on bread, cakes, cookies and biscuits.
Ground Salvia hispanica seed can be made into flour (usually in a mix with other cereal flours) and used in baked goods including breads, cakes and biscuits.
Although leaves can be used in teas, Salvia hispanica is better known for a nutritious drink, called Chia Fresca. The seed is soaked in water, causing it to become gelatinous in texture. It is then flavoured with fruit juices. The gelled seeds can also be prepared as a porridge or pudding.
The seed has a long shelf life and can be sprouted. The sprouts are highly edible, and can be used in soups, stews, sandwiches. It can be added to salads just like alfalfa and wheatgrass. Due to its mucilaginous properties it is often sprouted on clay or other porous material.
Salvia hispanica seed is a thirst quencher and survival food. One tablespoon of seed is sufficient to sustain a person doing hard labour for 24 hours.
Salvia hispanica reduces blood glucose levels and helps to regulate blood pressure and other risk factors for heart disease in diabetics.
Dr. Vladamir Vuksan and a team of Canadian researchers at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto reported the following in the journal Diabetes Care:
They calculated that 100g of Salvia hispanica seeds contain:
- The same amount of omega-3 essential fatty acids as 28 ounces of salmon;
- As much calcium as 3 cups of milk;
- As much iron as five cups of raw spinach.
- Salvia hispanica seed is also rich in dietary fibre and it is gluten-free.
- Just 12 grams of seed provides more than five grams of dietary fibre - about the same as in 1-¼ cups of All-Bran cereal.
- They found that the seeds contain high levels of magnesium and more antioxidants than many berries.
The grain's insoluble fibre allows it to absorb many times its weight in water. By doing so, it helps provide a feeling of fullness and slows digestion, which means a steadier rise in blood sugar as well as a steadier release of insulin.
Dr. Vuksan’s study tracked 20 otherwise healthy diabetic patients for 12 weeks. His team ground the seeds into flour and baked it into bread, which was served to the diabetics. They were also given additional amounts to sprinkle on food they ate at home. Their total intake was approximately 37 grams (three to four tablespoons of Salvia hispanica seeds) a day.
The 20 diabetics then had their blood measured for a variety of changes. The researchers noted
- a slight drop in blood glucose, but more importantly,
- the seeds made their blood thinner and less prone to clotting — a risk factor for heart attacks and stroke;
- lowered levels of internal inflammation as measured by C-reactive protein, a protein produced by the liver; and
- reduced blood pressure, lowering systolic blood pressure, on average, by six points mmHg (millimetres of mercury).
Dr. Amir Hanna, a diabetes specialist at St. Michael's who reviewed the data from the study, was impressed with the results. "The interesting thing was the blood pressure," he says. "That's a very important reduction in blood pressure. Actually, some pills don't lower blood pressure that much."
While the study found no ill effects in any of the 20 subjects tested, they cautions that, because of Salvia hispanica’s ability to thin blood, those on anticoagulants, blood thinners and other blood pressure medications should consult their doctors before taking it.
Additional studies are planned for the future on Salvia hispanica’s effects on heart disease, arthritis — and even weight loss, because of the grain's apparent ability to suppress appetite.
"I think it's a great thing to pursue because it is a food ingredient rather than a pill or injection," says Hanna.
Salvia hispanica seeds (marketed as Salba) have become a popular item in health shops, with many embracing this ancient seed as a modern nutritional wonder grain.
Studies have shown that adding Salvia hispanica seed to chicken feed may improve the nutritional value of chicken products by increasing the omega-3 content and decreasing the cholesterol content of the meat and eggs.
Salvia hispanica is also grown today for its invaluable properties as a binder in industrial compounds, such as varnish, paints and cosmetics.