Are you eating chia seeds wrong? Scientists show grinding them is the key to unlocking benefits

Chia seeds are often touted as “superfoods” due to their high levels of omega-3 fatty acids and dietary fibre, but are we getting the most out of those nutrients when we eat them whole?

New research in the journal Food & Function suggests not, with Australian researchers showing that grinding chia seeds improves the bio accessibility of key nutrients in a model of digestion using gut bacteria from pigs.

“Chia seeds contain healthy fats, antioxidants and dietary fibre but there isn’t a lot of research into how the composition of these seeds interact with gut microflora, which help to digest food,” says senior author Professor Rachel Burton from the University of Adelaide’s School of Agriculture, Food and Wine. 

“Through this research, we discovered that different preparation methods influenced the nutritional benefits gained from the seeds and grinding them up delivered more nutrients than consuming them whole.” 

Chia seeds come from the plant Salvia hispanica L. and although they’ve experienced a recent surge in popularity, humans have been cultivating them for thousands of years. They’re believed to have originated in Central America where they were eaten by the Aztecs.

They’re gluten free, can be eaten raw thrown into smoothies, yogurt, cereal, or added to bread or crackers. When mixed with a liquid they form into thick, gelatinous texture which can be eaten as is – the aforementioned chia pudding – or used as an egg substitute in baking recipes.

Chia seeds forming a gelatinous texture, dripping off a spoon
Rehydrated chia seeds. Credit: Mateusz Kropiwnnicki/Getty Images

The researchers assessed the fermentability of different chia seed preparations, including whole seeds and seeds that had been ground into a meal.

They simulated the digestion process by incubating the samples for 70 hours, while a measuring the gases released.

“What we found was that when the seeds were ground down, they produced more beneficial metabolites or fuel that could then be used to renew gut cells. This shows the benefits of eating chia seeds could be enhanced if the nutlets are ground, improving access to key nutrients such as dietary fibre,” says Dr James Cowley, who also worked on the study. 

“There is a lot of emerging research that show gut microbes in the digestive system influence a huge range of conditions including depression and anxiety,” he adds.

“Consuming ground chia seeds may potentially shift populations of gut microbes and affect progression of these conditions, however more research needs to be conducted.”

Many of the pre-clinical and clinical studies showing the health benefits of chia seeds have been conducted with whole chia, so there may be some benefit in replicating them using ground seeds.

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