Lately I’ve been adding chia seeds to a lot of my smoothies. They have a very neutral flavor, and add a bit of creaminess/body. The primary reason for adding them though is their nutritional profile. First and foremost is their omega-3 fatty acid content, of which they have 2.4g/tablespoon, and they also have 3g/tablespoon of protein (according to the Nutrition Facts on the bag I have).
I recommend adding them to the blender before anything else, and it helps to have the blender dry, because otherwise some seeds will stick to the walls. It doesn’t make much difference, but once I’ve added them I often add 4-6 ounces of water so that they have a bit of time to soak as I prepare the rest of the ingredients.
Chia vs. Flax
One thing that I haven’t gotten to the bottom of yet is how they compare to flax seeds. Flax seeds have a similar nutritional profile and are cheaper. However, if I remember correctly flax seeds have a stronger flavor, so they don’t go with as many things (especially fruit-based smoothies).
I was turned off of flax seeds after reading that they have one of the highest concentrations of phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogens are plant-derived substances that when digested can mimic estrogen. Like many nutritional questions, there’s no iron-clad study that establishes whether they’re good or bad for us, but I figured I would try to avoid overdoing them. I previously read that chia seeds have much lower phytoestrogen levels than flax, but now that I go back to look for a solid reference I can’t find any evidence that that’s the case, and I’ve even seen an unreferenced claim that chia has more phytoestrogen than flax in the form of lignans. Because chia is relatively new to the mainstream modern diet, there’s not much published on them, so we’ll have to wait to know for sure.
I don’t usually put too much weight into this sort of thing, but there’s also the history of human consumption: flax was traditionally grown for its fiber and oil for nonfood purposes, while there’s a long history of Native Americans growing chia for food.
I’ll also briefly mention hemp seeds, since they’re are often put in the same category as chia and flax. I bought a bag once, and I didn’t like their flavor. Also, their ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids is not nearly as high as chia or flax, so that’s another strike against them. Plus they have the similar characteristic as flax of having been historically cultivated primarily for fibers, not food.
Chia seeds are a bit on the expensive side, but I’ve found them on Amazon.com for under $8/lb. Unfortunately I don’t see it for that price any more. I wonder if the chia craze spiked demand; maybe the prices will come back down once chia farmers respond by planting more. I’ll update this the next time I buy some with the best deal I find [pricing update here], though at current prices I might have to more seriously consider flax seeds. If you have a good source I’d like to hear about it.
I got the Nutiva organic ones, though I’m not sure how much difference organic makes on this product. One thing for sure is to get the whole seeds and not milled seeds or extracted oil. The intact seeds seal out oxygen to prevent the oils from oxidizing and going rancid (they have a shelf life of years), and the blender will take care of breaking them up anyway. White chia seeds are also available, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason to pay extra for them.