Advocates of these South American seeds claim chia seeds are a 'superfood' that has health benefits, but what's the truth about this "novel" food that's been gaining international attention?
What are chia seeds?
Chia seeds are tiny seeds from the seed pods of Salvia hispanica L, a summer annual herbaceous plant that is a member of the mint family, related to sage. It grows in Mexico and South America, where it is believed they were once part of the Aztec diet. The seeds have been described as having either a bland or mild nutty taste, but they've become news because of claims about their health benefits.
Are chia seeds available in the UK?
Yes, but with restrictions. Chia seeds are considered a 'novel' food, meaning that it does not "have a significant history of consumption within the European Union before 15 May 1997", according to the Advisory Committee of Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP). The ACNFP is an independent organisation with scientific experts that advises the Food Standards Agency on any matters linked to novel food, ensuring that only safe food is sold in the UK.
An application was made to the ACNFP in 2003 to include chia seeds in breads, but it was not until 2009 that authorisation to market chia seeds in bread products at a maximum level of 5% was given. In January 2013 authorisation was given to extend the use of chia seeds but limit it to:
- Bread products (maximum of 5%)
- Baked products (maximum of 10%)
- Breakfast cereals (maximum of 10%)
- Fruit, nut and seed mixes (maximum of 10%)
- Pre-packaged Chia seed (maximum of 15g per day)
Why the interest in chia seeds?
While sales of chia seeds are limited in Europe, elsewhere they have been gaining in popularity in the last decade, especially in the US, where the seeds are used in sweets, snacks, yogurt and baby food. Part of the reason for the seed's growing popularity can be credited to the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, who has written that a tribe in Mexico has used the seeds to fuel long-distance runs. The seeds have also appeared in the US online as being able to control hunger to help people lose weight. Others claim that chia seeds may help improve cardiovascular risk factors.
However, much of the claims of health benefits are based on limited animal or human studies with only a small number of participants. One study at Appalachian State University, in which participants consumed chia seeds over a 12-week period, showed no change in appetite, weight loss or various disease risk factors.
While there is little evidence in humans indicating that chia seeds will help you lose weight, the US Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says they are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acid and fibre, and that they also contain protein, iron, calcium, magnesium and zinc. In fact, the ACNFP found that chia seeds are "a highly nutritious addition to the European diet", containing about 20% protein, a greater level than other nutritious grains such as wheat (14%), oats (15%) and amaranth (14%).
A recommended daily limit of 15g of chia seeds is being proposed for the UK, which nutritionally would provide: