Chia Seeds as a Functional Food: Navigating the Latest Study Findings

Chia seeds are gaining attention as a novel food, earning the nickname "the golden seeds of the 21st century." Originally from Mexico and Guatemala, these seeds are now grown in many other countries, including the US, Australia, Colombia, Peru, and Argentina. Read more to discover the potential health benefits of chia seeds.

Nutrient profile of chia seeds

A 100-gram serving of chia seeds contains:

Energy486 kcal
Protein16.5 g
Total fat30.7 g
Carbohydrates42.1 g
Fiber34.4 g

The micronutrients of chia seeds

Chia seeds contain essential amino acids, healthy fats, plenty of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidant compounds.

Essential amino acids

Chia seeds are plant-based protein sources containing around 15–25% protein. Besides, chia seeds contain all the essential amino acids needed for a healthy functioning body. Proteins are involved in cell repair and growth, hormone synthesis, fluid balance regulation, immunity, etc.

The human body can't produce essential amino acids, so they should be taken through a diet. If all essential amino acids are present in a food, the bioavailability of the food rises so it can be used more efficiently by the body. Bioavailability describes how much specific nutrients in foods (in this case, amino acids) can be absorbed and used effectively in the body.

Essential unsaturated fatty acids

Chia seeds contain essential unsaturated fatty acids such as alpha lipoic acid (ALA). ALA is a plant type of omega-3 fatty acids, which are healthy fats associated with cardiovascular health benefits. Other ALA sources include but are not limited to walnuts, flaxseed, pumpkin seeds, and canola oil.

Dietary fiber

Chia seeds contain a good amount of fiber. With more than 30 grams of fiber in 100 grams of chia seeds, this is more than most seeds and nuts contain. However, it is advised not to exceed 48 g of chia seeds per day.

Fiber is associated with a lower risk of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and bowel cancer.

Vitamins and minerals

Chia seeds are rich in vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, C, and E, as well as minerals, including calcium, phosphorus, iron, potassium, magnesium, and selenium.

Bioactive compounds

Chia seeds are rich in antioxidant compounds, polyphenols, and tocopherols, which capture free radicals that can damage cells. Free radicals build up due to metabolism and environmental exposures such as ultraviolet light, air pollution, chemicals, and smoking.

Foods rich in antioxidants, including chia seeds, help eliminate these harmful molecules and prevent cells from damage and diseases.

Potential health benefits of chia seeds

Chia seeds are marketed as functional foods, commonly defined as foods that improve health by preventing diseases and maintaining health. However, there is no set definition or regulatory status for functional foods.

The seeds have been associated with heart and metabolic health. Various studies demonstrated the effects of chia seeds on lowering lipid levels, blood pressure, blood glucose, and inflammation, among others.

Chia seeds may show cardioprotective effects

The content of chia seeds — fiber, antioxidant compounds, and omega-3 fatty acids — has been associated with cardioprotective effects. Chia seeds contain a good amount of fiber, antioxidant compounds, and omega-3 fatty acids, which all have been associated with improving heart health.

A study compared the effects of chia seeds and wheat bran on diabetes patients. Participants were given 15 g of chia seeds per 1,000 kcal of their daily energy requirement; the average intake of chia seeds was 37 g per day. The results showed that participants consuming chia seeds had significantly reduced systolic blood pressure and inflammation markers (high-sensitivity C-reactive protein) compared to those who didn't eat chia seeds.

A 2023 meta-analysis of 14 clinical studies showed that chia seeds significantly improved systolic and diastolic blood pressure, total cholesterol, LDL (also known as bad cholesterol), and triglyceride levels. Included studies involved participants consuming 4–50 g of chia seeds for various durations from 2 to 6 months.

Chia seeds may improve metabolic health

Alpha lipoic acid (ALA) supplementation has also been associated with decreased fasting blood glucose and insulin resistance. Since chia seeds contain a good amount of ALA, a group of researchers investigated the relationship between chia seeds and insulin resistance in middle-aged adults with normal weight. Results showed that participants consuming higher amounts of chia seeds were less likely to have insulin resistance.

Another study explored the effects of chia seed consumption on diabetes patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Thirty-two patients were given 25 g of chia seeds daily for 8 weeks. Chia seed consumption was associated with better pancreatic beta cell functions (the cells that produce insulin hormone) and healthier adipose tissue (lower inflammatory cytokine levels).

However, human studies on the health effects of chia seeds are limited to studies with small numbers of participants. Further evidence and analysis are needed to understand how effective chia seeds can be, especially for cardiovascular, metabolic, and overall health.

Safety of chia seeds

Chia seeds are approved as a novel food for their use in food categories, including but not limited to bread products, baked products, breakfast cereals, fruit, nut and seed mixes, pre‐packaged chia seeds, yogurt, and similar.

The safety of chia seeds is evaluated by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), and no potential health risks to human health were found regarding chia seed toxicity.

Examples of authorized use of chia seeds in products by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA):

ProductsAuthorized maximum levels
Bread products5% whole or ground chia seeds
Baked products10% whole chia seeds
Fruit, nut, and seed mixes10% whole chia seeds

Seeds and nuts are part of a healthy and balanced diet. They provide healthy fatty acids, amino acids, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidant compounds. Although studies investigating the effects of higher consumption than 50 g per day are lacking, you may consume chia seeds in small amounts as a part of your daily diet. Nonetheless, it's best to consult your doctor and dietitian if there are any questions about your nutrition and health.

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