Chia seeds, so familiar from those holiday ads for terracotta Chia pets, are the seeds from a flowering salvia plant related to mint. But they can do much more than provide luxuriant green pelts on Chia pets.
The positive effects of taking chia seeds appear to be high, and the side effects appear to be few. The University of Maryland Medical Center says research shows that omega 3 fatty acids such as the alpha-lipoic acid and EPA in chia seed play a significant role in healthy brain function. They also lower the risk of cancer, heart disease and arthritis.
Research shows that taking dietary supplements of chia seed may lower blood pressure and the chances of heart disease. Chia seed is also a good source of soluble fibre and essential omega 3 fatty acids. Each of those benefits, however, can have its drawbacks.
When the Spanish conquistadors discovered the Aztec civilisation of Mexico in the early 16th century, the Aztecs had already been using chia seed as a dietary and medicinal staple for centuries. They would even grind the seeds into a portable flour, which would sustain them on their travels.
Today in Mexico, chia seeds mixed with water, lemon or lime juice, and sugar make a favourite beverage, chia fresca.
Heart Disease & Cancer
The good news is, a University of Toronto study concluded that adding chia to someone's diet over the long term lowered his risk of heart disease more than conventional treatment. A 2004 study at the Netherlands' Wageningen Centre for Food Sciences found that high blood levels of the alpha-lipoic acid found in chia seeds might lower the chances of someone's dying from a heart attack.
The bad news is the Netherlands study also indicated that taking chia can raise the risk of prostate cancer in men. These results are not proven by any other study.
A study done at Toronto's St. Michael's Hospital tested whether taking chia seeds would lower the risk of cardiovascular complications in 20 elderly people suffering from controlled type 2 diabetes. The study's participants consumed daily doses of between 33 and 41g of either the white chia seed called Salba, or wheat bran. At the end of 12 weeks, the people who took the Salba had their systolic blood pressure (the upper reading) drop by between 2.3 and 10.3 points.
While that's encouraging for someone with a history of high blood pressure, taking chia seeds could be dangerous for someone with typically low blood pressure. The American Heart Association warns that although there's no specific number at which low blood pressure is considered too low, the brains and organs of people with abnormally low blood pressure can become oxygen and nutrient-deprived. If taking chia seed lowered blood pressure enough in someone who already had low blood pressure, that person could go into shock, or even die.
Other Side Effects
Although a high-fibre diet is normally considered healthy, the American Dietetic Association warns that high-fibre foods such as chia seeds can cause gas and intestinal bloating. If you find yourself dealing with digestive problems after you start taking chia, cut back on the amount until your system adjusts.
The European Food Safety Authority says that chia seed's potential as an allergen has not been completely ruled out.
Cost & Availability
While not side effects, the cost and availability of chia seeds are drawbacks. Chia seed, oil, or ground flour is rarely found in local stores, although it can be ordered online from numerous sources.
A one-month supply of Salba, the brand of white chia seeds used in the University of Toronto study, sells online for £19.40 plus shipping.