Recently a client of mine asked if I would put together a cheat sheet with the health benefits of chia, flax, and hemp. I surely would, and I also thought it would be a great idea for a nutrition post on The Muffin Myth. So I’m here today with the Super Seed Smackdown!
Let’s start with chia!
Chia comes from a plant called Salvia hispanica, which is in the same family as mint. And yes, it is the same family of seeds used to grow the green hair on your Chia Pet in the ’80s. Chia was an important crop to the Aztecs - in fact the word “chia” is said to mean strength in ancient Mayan. Today chia is still cultivated to some extent by small Latin American farmers, but about half of the world’s chia actually comes from Australia.
Chia seeds are very rich in soluble fiber. They are an excellent source of essential minerals such as phosphorous, manganese, calcium, sodium and potassium, and contain a good amount of both protein and antioxidants. These little seeds are a concentrated source of the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). In fact, gram for gram, chia seeds contain more omega-3s than salmon. They don’t, however, contain DHA or EPA, the heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oils or some algal oils.
Due to the exceptional water-absorption properties of chia, it can help prolong hydration and help the body retain electrolytes at times such as during exertion. Whole, water-soaked chia seeds are easily digested, and their nutrients can be quickly absorbed by the body. Once soaked, chia seeds bulk up, then work like a cleaning crew in our digestive systems. As they move through the intestinal tract, they help to dislodge and eliminate accumulated waste in the intestines. Many people find their stools also become more regular once they eat chia.
How to use chia:
Blend chia seeds into smoothies, or gulp 'em down whole in a chia fresca. Use them in muffins, smoothie bowls, or make these super seed bars. Use them as a vegan egg replacer, to thicken overnight oats, or in the ubiquitous chia puddings.
Known in many parts of the world as linseed, flax has not only served as a food source, but is also the plant from which linen is produced for clothing, the creation of sails, bowstrings, and body armour historically.
Flax seeds, or, Linum usitatissimum, enjoyed a long time in the limelight as the super seed of choice, and with good reason. Flax seeds are a nutritional powerhouse. They are extraordinarily high in Omega-3 fatty acids, with just two tablespoons of flax seeds containing over 130% of the recommended daily intake. Flax seeds are also high in dietary fiber, including mucilaginous fiber, which slows down the emptying of stomach contents into the small intestine and helps improve nutrition absorption in the intestine. Flax seeds are a source of magnesium, manganese, and phosphorous.
Additionally, flax seeds are rich in the fiber-related polyphenols, lignans, which have been shown to reduce the risk of many types of cancer - this is a benefit that chia does not provide. However, flaxeeds have a hard shell that can not be broken down by the human digestive tract, so it must be ground in order for their nutrients to be optimally absorbed.
And compared to chia and hemp, flax is cheap as chips!
How to use flax:
Use ground flax combined with water as a vegan egg replacer. Blend it into smoothies (but make sure to grind it up first), use it in energy bars, or as a binder in veggie burgers, lentil loaf, or homemade gluten-free crackers. Sprinkle on salads, bake into cakes, or make vegan freezer waffles.
Hemp is a member of the Cannabis genus of plants, which have long been used as a source of fiber in production of rope, boat sails, paper, and cloth. In recent years, hemp has played an expanding role in the food supply.
Nutritionally, hemp provides up to 75% more protein than either flax or chia. However, hemp provides virtually no dietary fiber. Hemp seeds are a good source of essential fatty acids, but it isn’t as high in omega-3s as chia or flax are. Linoleic acid, the omega-6 essential fatty acid, accounts for about two-thirds of the essential fatty acids found in hemp seeds.
There are also amino acids found in the protein portion of hemp seeds that can make important contributions to daily protein requirements. Hemp seeds are also a source of antioxidants, amino acids, iron, zinc, carotene, phospholipids, phytosterols, vitamin B1, vitamin B2, vitamin B6, vitamin D, vitamin E, calcium, magnesium, copper, potassium, and phosphorus.
How to use hemp:
I love hemp in my smoothies! It adds a great boost of protein in this carrot apple ginger smoothie, makes this strawberry coconut super smoothie creamy like woah, and pump up the greenest smoothie. I also love hemp sprinkled on salads, over smashed avocado, baked into breakfast bars, or as a topping on this Indonesian black rice pudding.
I made you a handy reference chart so you can compare the basic nutrition of chia, flax, and hemp side by side. It doesn't get into the nitty gritty of micronutrients, vitamins, or antioxidants, but it should give you a pretty good reference for your daily basics. Remember, variety is the spice of life! Rotate your super seeds throughout the week so you get a little bit of everything. That's the ticket!