The commercials were easily mistaken for Saturday Night Live skits, with their exaggerated enthusiasm, catchy jingle, and seemingly arbitrary products. Believe it or not, Chia Pets still exist, and the line has been expanded to include donkey, puppy, Shrek, and even President Obama planters.
Who knew that while waiting for our president's leafy green Afro to sprout, we had just slathered our Chia Pet pottery with a perfectly edible superfood?
Chia is a desert plant and a member of the mint family. Its seeds were a major food source for the Mayans and were the main sustenance of Aztec warriors. It's great as a vegetarian replacement for fish as a source of omega-3 fatty acids (which help reduce bad cholesterol, maintain the health of cell walls, reduce inflammation, alleviate depression and ADHD, and prevent cancer cell growth, among other benefits). Like flax, chia can be used in baking or added to cereals, salads, and smoothies. But I think chia is even cooler than flaxseed because of its higher density of omega-3s, its longer shelf life, and the fact that its nutrients are bio-available even when the seeds are consumed whole. I also like its (negligible) taste better, plus its cool gelling properties, which I'll talk more about later.
Chia is rich in antioxidants, fiber, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, manganese, copper, niacin, and zinc, among other nutrients. It's also a good source of complete protein and omega-6 fatty acids. In fact, it naturally has what WebMD suggests as a perfect balance of omega-3 and -6 fatty acids.
Its ability to sprout on clay surfaces is not chia's only cool physical property. Put a few tablespoons in a short glass of water, wait 30 minutes, and you'll have a glass of chia jelly that kind of looks like frog eggs. This satisfyingly textured liquid can be added to freshly made organic juice or slurped down on its own. The gelling property of the seed "sprouted" a line of chia beverages called Mamma Chia, sweetened with organic agave, in flavors such as blackberry hibiscus and cherry lime, available at Whole Foods and other health-food stores.
The gelling action is to thank for another awesome thing about chia: Research shows that a bellyful of chia gel slows the digestion of carbohydrates so that they're released more evenly into the bloodstream, preventing blood sugar spikes and crashes.
Local health-food educator and "plant love" chef Jordan Wolfe knows about chia's long list of health benefits, but he uses the seeds for a different reason.
"I do it more for the jelly-like consistency that it gives to the drinks or the pudding. It makes it a unique experience," Wolfe says. "I put it in homemade lemonade or iced tea. You could even put it in wine, which would be kind of weird."
Try his cheeky chia-based raw-foods dessert to begin ch-ch-ch-changing your diet deliciously:
Jordan's "Ch-Ch-Ch-Chunky Monkey" Chia Pudding
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2 1/2 cups unsweetened almond milk
2/3 cup chia seeds
3 tbsp raw honey (or organic agave)
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/3 cup raw cacao powder
½ cup raw walnuts
¼ cup cacao nibs
Whisk honey, cacao powder, and sea salt into almond milk. (You can also use a blender for this step.)
Add chia and whisk until consistent.
Cover and refrigerate overnight.
Add chopped banana, walnuts, and raw cacao nibs and serve.