Explore the health benefits of chia seeds

September 2, 2013

The other day, I overheard part of a "Dr. Oz" show (not deliberately, I was trapped in a doctor’s waiting room) as he touted the health benefits of chia seeds. Yes, the very same seeds used for Chia Pets - terra cotta figurines that grow sprouts to resemble fur or hair. He described chia seeds as a nutritional powerhouse, and after some research, it appears he’s quite correct.

Chia seeds are not a recent discovery; they were a dietary staple of the Mayans and Aztecs thousands of years ago. They used the seeds in a variety of ways: ground into flour, pressed for oil and mixed into a bubbly beverage. The foods made with chia seeds were prized for providing energy and stamina. Looking at a nutritional analysis, we understand the reasons why.

One tablespoon of chia seeds contains only 60 calories, 5 grams of fiber and 3 grams of protein. They’re loaded with desirable omega fatty acids and calcium. Dr. Oz suggested using their gelatinous consistency as a dietary aid: instead of cookies for your mid-afternoon snack, stir chia seeds into juice or plain water.

They begin to dissolve and thicken the liquid without adding any noticeable taste. Once swallowed, the seeds will continue to expand slightly in your stomach, providing a long-lasting sense of fullness. The two women interviewed by Dr. Oz agreed they felt quite satisfied. They had no late-afternoon cravings and were able to cook dinner without snacking along the way.

Not only as a beverage additive, chia seeds may be used in a number of other ways. Unlike flax seeds, which need to be ground, chia seeds don’t need to be cooked or crushed before they’re sprinkled on cereal or yogurt, adding a bit of nutty crunch. They can be added to bread dough and muffin batter for both texture interest and nutritional value.

Despite the ringing endorsements, I was a bit skeptical about eating chia seeds. Turns out, I must have missed the memo on chia seeds as the not-so-new superfood. When our neighbors Bob and Debbie came for dinner a few days later, they brought dessert: chia seed pudding. Served in delicate china bowls, the pudding was a pale blue from blueberries, slightly sweet from almond milk and agave syrup, and beautifully garnished with strawberry.

The flavor was light and fruity; the texture was almost like tapioca made with miniature pearls. We enjoyed it so much, we tried making a batch of our own. The pudding in the photo is a mixture of chia seeds, blueberries, unsweetened almond milk, banana and vanilla. It developed a rich texture, deep blue color and hints of sweetness.

I’ve included the recipe for our version of chia seed pudding, but it’s quite fun to experiment with alternative ingredients to vary the flavors. For example, you can substitute strawberries or peaches for the blueberries and bananas or almond extract for the vanilla. If you want a sweeter pudding, add agave syrup or use sweetened almond milk. To satisfy the chocolate lovers, try adding cocoa powder instead of fruit, and for a tropical version blend in pineapple or mango chunks.

When you’re ready to bake muffins or bread with chia seeds, you’ll find hundreds of recipes on the internet, some more complicated than they need be. We’ve been pleased with the muffins from a slightly modified Dr. Oz recipe (below). The applesauce and sweet potato add richness without fat, and the combination of lemon and cherry creates a bright flavor.

And, when you’re ready to grow a Chia Pet, you can find forms that range from cats and dogs to the characters on “Duck Dynasty.”

Blueberry Chia Seed Pudding

1 C plain almond milk
1/2 t vanilla
1/2 banana
2 C blueberries
1/2 C chia seeds

Combine all the ingredients except the chia seeds in the bowl of a food processor or blender. Purée until thoroughly combined. Stir in the chia seeds and pour into a bowl. Refrigerate for at least one hour (or overnight), stirring often during the first 60 minutes. Decant into serving dishes and garnish with berries. Yield: 4 servings.

Chia Seed Muffins*

1/4 C chia seeds
1 1/2 C whole-wheat flour
2 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
1 C sweet potato purée
1 C applesauce
2 egg whites
1/4 C agave syrup
juice and zest of 1 lemon
1 T vanilla extract
1/2 C dried cherries

Preheat oven to 350 F. Coat the inside of a 12-cup muffin tin with nonstick cooking spray or line with paper muffin cups; set aside. Combine dry ingredients in a mixing bowl; set aside. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together wet ingredients. Fold dry ingredients into wet ingredients. Ladle batter into prepared muffin pan and bake until a tester comes out clean, about 20 minutes.

*Adapted from “Dr. Oz.”

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