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Experts remain on sidelines over chia

By Martha Filipic Contributing Columnist

March 15, 2014

Some of my friends are huge fans of chia seeds. Do they really offer so many health benefits, or is it just hype?


Chia seeds do have some great properties. But unlike the seeds of Jack and the Beanstalk fame, they aren’t magic, despite the enthusiasm of some vocal advocates. The science so far just hasn’t supported all of the press these little seeds have received.


But first the good news. Chia seeds are packed with nutrients. One ounce, about 2 tablespoons, offers about 18 percent of the calcium most adults need per day, 11 grams of fiber and 4 grams of protein, plus 4,900 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids — more than what you’ll find in flax seed. They are also touted for their high levels of antioxidants, which are higher than even in blueberries.


Some people say chia seeds have a mild, nutty flavor; to others, they are completely flavorless. Either way, they can be used ground or whole, sprinkled onto yogurt, cereal or salad. Chia seeds can also be used as a thickener in smoothies, soups or other foods. Chia’s binding properties make its gel a possible substitute for pectin in jam and eggs in baked goods or meat and vegetable patties.


But, if your primary reason to try chia is to test the product’s weight loss claims, you’ll need to take into account its high calorie content: Two tablespoons have nearly 140 calories. Promoters say chia seeds help with weight loss because they expand when exposed to liquid, so, like other high-fiber foods, they could help you feel full more quickly. Although that sounds good in theory, actual research hasn’t always supported the claim.


In a study published in Nutrition Research in 2009, researchers in North Carolina followed 76 overweight and obese participants for 12 weeks, with half consuming about 4 tablespoons of chia seeds a day and the other half getting a placebo. At the end of the study, researchers saw no difference in body mass or composition. Promoters also say chia seeds promote heart health and reduce blood sugar levels, but the same study didn’t find any effect on disease risk factors.


Other studies have found positive effects on weight, blood glucose and triglyceride levels, but these studies were much smaller. Experts who have reviewed the scientific literature say that so far, the evidence for chia’s health effects is too limited to make a persuasive argument either way.


It is also important to note that if you have a sensitivity to sesame or mustard seeds, you may have a similar reaction to chia. And dietitians warn that anyone who takes high blood pressure medication or blood thinners should check with a doctor before jumping on the chia bandwagon.


Chow Line is a service of Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH 43210-1043, or e-mail filipic.3@osu.edu.