Herb to Know: What is Chia Seed?

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Photo by Steven Foster
This tiny seed is packed with nutrients our bodies crave, like fiber and omega fatty acids.

Salvia hispanica
• Lamiaceae family
S. hispanica, or Mexican chia, can easily be confused with S. columbariae, or California chia

What is Chia Seed?

Yes, you’re reading that right. Chia, the very same herb that grew in the “cha-cha-cha-chia” pets popular in the ’80s, is a wholesome herb touted for its medicinal benefits. This herb produces tiny, oily seeds that are similar to flaxseed and packed full of healthful nutrients like fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. But unlike flaxseed, chia seed doesn’t need to be ground to provide its nutritional kick.

Tomatillo Chia Salsa recipe

Ancient Chia Uses

Chia (Salvia hispanica), an annual native to Mexico, has been around since 3500 B.C., when it was a staple crop among the Aztecs, second only to corn. 

The Aztecs ground chia seed to form wound-healing poultices; turned chia oil into skin-protecting ointments; and drank chia infusions as respiratory boosters. The Aztecs also believed this plant to be magical for its ability to increase stamina over long periods of time. 

Chia Seed Health Benefits

Today, chia is known as a “superfood,” or a food packed full of nutritional benefits. This seed contains about 136 calories per ounce and is loaded with protein, fiber, calcium, antioxidants and omega-3 and -6 fatty acids.

One ounce of chia seed provides 4 grams of protein, 11 grams of fiber, 9 grams of fat and high levels of calcium and phosphorous, according to the USDA National Nutrient Database. Most of us could benefit from extra fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, as the typical American diet is deficient in both, says Margaret Conover, Ph.D., a botanist at Stony Brook University in New York.

Fiber adds volume to meals without additional calories and, most importantly, helps with digestion, allowing food to move more easily and quickly through the colon. If you’re on the lookout for fiber sources in food, try chia–it provides 42 percent of the recommended daily value of fiber in just one serving.

One single ounce of chia also has more omega-3 fatty acids than salmon, a commonly recommended source for this essential nutrient. Omega-3 fatty acids, or polyunsaturated fatty acids, boost brain power and help fight heart disease. Studies also indicate that deficiencies in omega-3 could lead to mood swings or depression.

This seed may help people with type 2 diabetes, according to a 2007 University of Toronto study. In the study, participants with type 2 diabetes ate 3 to 4 tablespoons of Salba, a commercial chia product, every day for 12 weeks. They experienced reduced systolic blood pressure and showed improved clotting factors that resulted in a blood-thinning effect.

Using Chia

Sprinkle whole chia seeds over yogurt or oatmeal, toss them into a smoothie or blend them into baked goods. You can also grind chia seeds, toast them or use them to whip up our Tomatillo Chia Salsa.

Chia absorbs up to 12 times its own weight. When soaked in water, it forms a “gel” layer around each seed and “plumps up,” making it a great thickening agent in beverages such as smoothies. (Try our Refreshing Hibiscus Chia Drink recipe.)

Because it is so high in fiber, you only need to add small quantities of chia to your diet to attain its beneficial effects. Aim to consume about one ounce per day.

Growing Chia

S. hispanica is an annual native to Mexico and Central America. It typically grows up to 4 feet tall and produces blue flowers arranged in terminal spikes. Because chia requires so much sunlight, it can not be grown for its seed in the United States. Purchase chia seed from your local health-food store. (Keep reading for our resources list.)

If you grow chia, its sprouts are high in calcium but don’t contain the fiber, omega fatty acids or other nutrients found in its seed. To grow, sprinkle chia seed anywhere moist. For a fun project, soak a brick with water, sprinkle it with seeds and wait. 

Where to Buy Chia Seed

Navitas Naturals

NOW Foods


Mountain Rose Herbs

Bob’s Red Mill


Gina DeBacker is assistant editor at The Herb Companion magazine.

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