Food spotlight: Ch-ch-ch-chia seed!

9 Aug

I’m not sure which American fads of the ’80s and ’90s ever made it to Australia, so bear with me while I recount the era of Chia Pets, as it’ll help us better understand our subject: the chia seed.

If you’re wondering what the hell a Chia Pet is, let me explain.  For a while, the children of America put down their teddy bears and dolls for a collection of oddball figurines, which could grow green “fur” or “hair,” through moistened chia seed applied to their terracotta bodies.  The chia would turn to gel, and sprouts would crop up within a few weeks, serving as endless wonder for proud Chia Pet owners. 

My personal fascination with Chia Pets stemmed from the catchy singing commercials (“ch-ch-ch-Chia!”) which filled American airwaves for about 20 years.  I must have had quite an ego at age five, because all I ever heard was “Ta-ta-ta-Tina! Tina pets!”  My heart would swell with pride whenever the grass-like chia sprouted from the porous clay-like critters, which ranged from chia puppies and hippos to chia professors and clowns.  My Tina pets. 

This lasted a while until my big sister visited one weekend and corrected me, as big sisters are wont to do. 

“You know, it’s ch-ch-ch-chia, not ta-ta-ta-Tina.”

Despite her argument, which made sense, I remained in denial and didn’t accept the truth until much, much later in life.

Unfortunately, my self-interest in Chia Pet commercials caused me to overlook the real intrigue—these curious little creatures were growing green stuff out of their backs, heads and torsos in a matter of weeks, with little effort from their caretakers.  One simply needed to soak the Chia Pet in water, spread the seeds, place it in a sunny area of the house and let the magic happen.  This should have been wildly fascinating, but it was lost on me, and I never desired a Chia Pet.  Hearing my name in a TV jingle was gratifying enough.

I regret this, because maybe if I had a Chia Pet, the seeds would have been planted for an interest in science, paving the way for a future as a biologist, which would have been cool.

Chia dropped off my radar for the next 15 years, until a friend recommended I read Born to Run, by American journalist Christopher McDougall.

In Born to Run, McDougall travels to the Copper Canyons of northwest Mexico.  His mission is to track down the reticent Tarahumara, one of the most mysterious and primitive Indian tribes left in the world.   The Tarahumara are known as the “running people,” as they’re capable of effortlessly running 100 miles a day, in one go.  If you think this is superhuman, get this: they run through unforgiving terrain in thin, hand-made sandals, resembling what it’s like to run barefoot.

Always the aspiring distance-runner, I absorbed every detail McDougall reported on the Tarahumara, in hopes that some beneficial revelation would be made, which I could emulate to improve my own endurance.

It seemed to me the Tarahumara were blessed with superior genes–they were literally born to run.  I don’t know what I was born to do, but after a lap around the block, I’m certain it’s not running.  In order to be a semi-decent runner, I have to train my heart out for several painstaking months, and when one sedentary week comes along, it’s back to the huffing-and-puffing start.    

McDougall raised my hopes when he described the Tarahumara diet, a major staple being chia seed.  Chia seed is full of omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants, which the body can store for long periods of time, keeping our energy tanks full.  Not to mention, chia seed provides nutrition we’re all constantly after, like protein, dietary fiber, calcium and iron, among other healthy nutrients and minerals.  Dieters have flocked to chia seed, as it allegedly tricks our stomachs into thinking they’re full. 

Along with our beloved Chia Pets and superhuman Tarahumara, the ancient Aztec and Mayan warriors reaped its benefits as well.  They ate this stuff to survive.  It’s been said one tablespoon of chia was enough to sustain a person for 24 hours.  And to think, I’ve been eating my weight in pasta before any physical exertion to keep myself going.      

I immediately went to my local health food store to see if they carried chia seed and fortunately, it was in stock.  There are endless ways to eat or drink chia, but I did what was inherent to an American college student and spooned it onto my peanut butter sandwiches or into my ramen noodle soup.  I eventually realized I could probably do better and found a raspberry and walnut quinoa recipe.  Quinoa (keen-wa) is another super food worth checking out—it’s a cross between rice and couscous and is nothing but good for you.

Chia is relatively tasteless—you could add it to anything–but I found its texture to be a little weird.  When chia seed is the least bit moistened, it wants to turn into gel, so it’s best to not let it linger in your mouth too long.  Runners are big into their energy gels (this has always eluded me), so many will consume their chia after soaking it in water for about 30 minutes.  Either way, it’ll turn into gel once it hits your stomach, making you feel full due to the increased size and weight. 

When I first added chia to my diet, I naively believed it was the magic potion I needed to get lean and turn into an ultra-distance runner overnight.  Even with chia, I still wanted to eat lots of cookies, thought about stopping two miles into a run, while sweating profusely and experiencing labored-breathing, but there was a noticeable lack of lethargy.  I’m a victim of serious midday lulls, and when I added chia to my diet, my energy levels felt more consistent. 

Many have claimed it to revolutionize their fitness and increase their brain power, but like anything, it’s something you have to try and decide for yourself. 

If you’re interested in trying chia seed, visit the organic aisle of your local supermarket.  I found a bag for $5.99 at Cole’s.  Also, get a copy of Born to Run–it’s fascinating, even if you hate running.


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