What are they?
Chia seeds are tiny seeds from the flowering plant Salvia Hispanica – a member of the mint family. The seed, which is native to South America, is available in grey, white and black varieties.
The health claims?
- They are one of the healthiest superfoods in the world
- They are low calorie but packed full of nutrients
- Eating them makes hair glossy and skin glow
- They cause weight loss and protect against diabetes and heart disease
The scientific facts?
- Chia seeds may be a bland tasting superfood, but there’s a lot of good stuff in them. A 25g handful contains almost a third of the minerals phosphorus, magnesium and manganese (for healthy bone and muscle function) the average person needs in a day, as well as notable amounts of B vitamins (for energy) and zinc (healthy immune system). With that said, these tiny seeds also contain high levels of phytic acid- a substance that prevents the body from being able to absorb the very minerals that chia seeds provide. What does this mean for the overall nutritional value of chia seeds? No-one actually knows because there’s a lack of research in this area.
- What is clear, however, is that the trendy health food is good for healthy digestion because each seed is 50% fibre and they’re a good source of anti-oxidants.
- With 122 kcals in every 25g handful, chia seeds aren’t as low calorie as some ‘experts’ would have you believe, but health claims that these super seeds are slimming are not totally unfounded. Studies, like this, have shown that chia seeds are not fat-burning or metabolism-boosting, but their high fibre content can make you feel fuller for longer. And this, at least in theory, may help you eat less overall and lose weight.
- But what about those glossy hair and glowing skin claims? Those are based on the seeds’ great amino acid (protein) profile. Amino acids are the building blocks of healthy hair and skin, but once again there’s no scientific proof that the plant-based protein in chia seeds improves skin health or hair growth.
- Chia seeds are also high in omega 3 oils as this study demonstrates, which may help protect against inflammation, heart disease and diabetes. But as the heart-healthy oils in these seeds are not in a form that is easy for the body to use, they may have little impact on heart disease, just as this study shows.
Nutritional facts – Chia seeds versus flaxseeds
Chia seeds have been called the new flaxseed, here’s how 100g of the two so-called superfoods compare:
- Kcals: Chia seeds 486 v flaxseeds 534
- Protein: Chia seeds 17g v flaxseeds 18g
- Fibre: Chia seeds 34g v flaxseeds 27g
- Fat: Chia seeds 31g v flaxseed 42g – but these are ‘good fats’
- Vitamins, minerals and miscellaneous nutrients: Chia seeds are a better source of calcium, phosphorus, vitamin A and vitamin C than flaxseeds. However, flaxseeds are higher in heart-healthy fats and lignans (a chemical thought to have anti-cancer properties).
Winner: Chia seeds have the edge, thanks to their higher fibre, calcium and vitamin content. However flaxseeds are a close contender with a better healthy fat profile.
Worth the hype?
It’s a shaky no. Despite their great reputation, a lot of health claims surrounding chia seeds are currently exaggerated and based on hearsay rather than facts. In addition, the seed’s high levels of the anti-nutrient phytic acid means that overall it may rob the body of minerals rather than nourish it. Adding the seeds to your diet certainly won’t hurt if you have a packet to hand, but proven sources of omega 3 oils, phosphorus and magnesium (such as almonds and oily fish) are more definite ways of ensuring you actually get the nutrients you’re after.