When you hear the word chia, you probably think of chia pets. Maybe you even mutter that catchy slogan: "ch-ch-ch-chia."
Or maybe not, but lately, chia seed has been getting buzz beyond those terra cotta figurines. It's becoming a popular health food. Rich in fiber, protein and the highest plant source of Omega 3s, the little seeds pack a major nutritional punch.
Wayne Coates grows and sells chia seeds and has a book called Chia: The Complete Guide to the Ultimate Superfood.
He's also an ultra-runner. In his free time, he goes on really long runs — some 100 miles long. He keeps chia seeds in a film canister to pour in his mouth along the way.
He tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that chia has long been known as a runner's food.
"An example is the Tarahumara Indians of the Copper Canyon in Mexico. They've been known as the "running Indians" and they have used it for years," Coates says. "The Aztec warriors used to carry it on their campaigns and it is said that that's really what they ate; it gave them sustained energy."
Coates says chia slows down digestion, so an energy boost can kick in later on.
The seed, native to south Mexico and Guatemala, was a staple among the Aztecs, so why was it forgotten for so long? Coates points to the Spanish invasion 500 years ago.
"The Spanish of course, never heard of it, didn't know what it was," he says. "And they pushed the natives to produce foods that [the Spanish] were familiar with."
Coates says it may also have to do with the Aztec's religious ceremonies.
"[The] main ceremony of the Aztecs turned out to be just at the same time as Easter," he says. "They actually made statues out of the chia flower and used it like a communion. So the Friars were kind of horrified about this and it was just pushed aside."
Coates is an agricultural engineer. He was seeking a profitable crop for Argentinian farmers to grow in 1991. He found chia was easy to grow and became convinced of its potential as a health food.
In recent years, chia has taken off in the U.S., but will chia seeds move beyond health food trend to reach mainstream acceptance? Superfood is an unscientific term and no single food can deliver miracles, but Coates doesn't think it's a fad.
"Add it to anything. I mean, some of our customers put it on their ice cream," he says. "We put it on our salad, I put in my orange juice. You can put in your yogurt. I like crunchy peanut butter sandwiches, sprinkle it on, you'll have a little more crunch."
Recipe: Chia Chipotle Bean Burger
Makes 4 to 6 servings
Bean burgers make a fast, casual and tasty meal that is high in protein and fiber and low in fat. Go ahead and make this recipe your own: Play around with the veggies and seasonings and experiment with other types of beans — you can use kidney and cannellini beans, chickpeas, or even lentils.
1 15-ounce can black beans
1/4 cup chia gel (see recipe below)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup corn kernels or sautéed or cooked vegetables (alternatively, use frozen corn kernels, defrosted, or vegetables leftover from another meal)
1 teaspoon canned chipotle in adobo, minced, or 1 teaspoon dried chipotle powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon minced cilantro or parsley (optional)
1 tablespoon virgin coconut oil
1. In the bowl of a food processor or high-speed blender (such as a Vitamix or Blendtec), pulse the ingredients until blended. Do not over-process; you do not want to liquefy!
2. Form the mixture into patties.
3. Heat the coconut oil in a frying pan over medium heat.
4. Cook the patties until golden, about five minutes. Flip and repeat.
5. Alternate cooking method: Preheat oven to 325F. Place the patties on a lightly oiled baking sheet and cook until golden, 12 to 15 minutes, turning halfway through cooking.
6. Serve on hamburger rolls with the condiments of your choice.
Makes 1 1/4 cups
1 cup cool water
1 3/4 tablespoons chia seeds
1. Pour the water into a sealable plastic or glass container. Slowly pour chia seeds into water while briskly mixing with wire whisk.
2. Wait 3 or 4 minutes and then whisk again
3. Let the mixture stand about 10 minutes before whisking again. Seal the container and store mixture in the refrigerator for up to two weeks to use as needed. Whisk before using. Note: Soaking in water will soften the chia seeds, but they will still be slightly crunchy.
From Chia: The Complete Guide to the Ultimate Superfood by Wayne Coates. Copyright 2012 by Wayne Coates. Excerpted by permission of Sterling Publishing.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHIA PET TV COMMERCIAL)
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Ch-ch-ch-chia.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Chia Pets: the pottery that grows.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: They're fun.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
Oh, Chia Pets. Those terracotta figures that grow hair-like sprouts may actually help you live longer. Not the pets, per se, but the seeds you use to grow the sprouts. In recent years, chia seeds have become popular with runners and other athletes to help boost endurance. The seeds are rich in fiber, protein and Omega 3s.
Wayne Coates, a foremost expert on chia seeds at the University of Arizona has a new book out. It's called "Chia: The Complete Guide to the Ultimate Superfood." In his free time, Wayne Coates goes on 100-mile runs, and he says during those runs, he often pours chia seeds from a film canister right into his mouth. He says chia seeds have long been a well-kept secret among runners.
WAYNE COATES: An example is the Tarahumara Indians of the Copper Canyon in Mexico. They've been known as the running Indians. And they have used it for years. The Aztec warriors used to carry it on their campaigns, and it is said that that's really what they ate. It gave them sustained energy.
RAZ: The seed is native to southern Mexico and Guatemala. It was a staple for the Aztecs. So why was it forgotten as a food source for so long? Well, Coates blames the Spanish invasion 500 years ago.
COATES: The Spanish, of course, never heard of it, didn't know what it was, and they pushed the natives to produce foods that they were familiar with. We also believe part of it was to do with their religious ceremonies because - their main ceremony of the Aztecs turned out to be just at the same time as Easter. And they actually made statues out of the chia flower and used it like a communion. So the friars were kind of horrified about this, and it was just pushed aside.
RAZ: Fast forward to the early 1990s, Coates, who is also an agricultural engineer, was looking for a profitable crop to grow in Argentina. He found that chia was easy to grow, and he became convinced of its potential as a health food. And it's been taking off in the U.S. Over the past three years, at least 100 chia products have hit the market.
COATES: Add it to anything. I mean, some of our customers put it on their ice cream. We put it on our salad. I put it in my orange juice. You can put in your yogurt. I like crunchy peanut butter sandwiches. Sprinkle it on, you'll have a little more crunch.
RAZ: And for more on the chia phenomenon and recipes, check out our website, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.