ASU studies ‘super food'
by Anna Oakes
Don't worry — no one's asking you to take a bite out of Jerry GarChia's curly mane. It's the seeds of chia in which scientists, nutritionists, athletes and others are interested.
Studies have shown that chia seed is rich in omega-3 and other nutrients, as well as a source of sustained energy. Additional research is needed to draw conclusions about chia's ability to reduce the risk of disease.
Dr. David Nieman, a professor in Appalachian State University's Health, Exercise and Leisure Science Department and director of ASU's Human Performance Laboratory at the N.C. Research Campus, has supervised the university system's studies of chia.
Nieman said the university was approached five or six years ago by a company interested in the effects of adding chia seed to the diet.
The ancient Aztecs and Mayans incorporated the seed in their diets hundreds of years ago, he noted.“A lot of people regard it as a magical food,” Nieman said. “There's been a lot of hype about chia seed.”
Chia is an oily seed chock full of fat and calories, which makes it a prime energy food, but it's still lower in fat and calories, per serving, than walnuts. One ounce of chia seed contains 44 percent of daily fiber, 20 percent of calcium, 15 percent of iron, 25 percent of phosphorous and 30 percent of manganese, according to Dole Foods.
Chia is rich in omega-3 in the form of alphalinolenic acid, which breaks down into fatty acids that may promote heart health. Nutritionists are interested in chia as an omega-3 alternative to fish, which may contain mercury and other contaminants.
“It's a very nutritious product that has this mystique about it,” said Nieman. “There's a huge surge in interest and the number of products that are containing chia seed.”
The university's first study on chia, conducted in Boone, utilized whole chia seeds, and it found no effect on women in any disease factors, Nieman said.
A subsequent trial, the results of which will be published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine next month, found that grinding chia seed results in increased omega-3 and beneficial fatty acids in blood levels.
“Whole chia does not release omega-3 very well,” Nieman said.
Despite chia's nutritional advantages, the study found no change in vascular function and no decreased risk for disease.
“It didn't magically change disease risk factors,” said Nieman. “It isn't like taking a pill to lower your cholesterol.”
While studies haven't shown a decreased disease risk over the short term, Nieman believes long-term use of chia could have an effect on disease risk, but more research is needed.
Another Dole-funded study that wrapped up in November 2011 found that after humans eat chia seed in the morning, its nutrients will surge into the blood two and a half hours later, creating a sustained energy release for about four hours, Nieman said.
“Ninety percent of the chia seed is used as fuel,” he added.
Based on findings from these studies, Dole Foods recently launched a line of products and recipes incorporating chia.
This summer, the N.C. Research Campus, which is jointly funded by ASU, the UNC system and private sources, will conduct a study of athletes who eat chia seed for two weeks and before exercising to study chia's benefits for athletic performance.
“We have now conducted more human trials (on chia) than any other team,” Nieman noted.
Nieman said a long-term study lasting at least one year is needed to study the effects of eating chia over sustained periods of time.
“Those are very expensive studies. We'll just have to see if we can get funding for something like that,” he said.