Ancient civilizations were supported by their own specific agriculture and functional foods. Foods of the ancient people, the world over, were interwoven into their spiritual beliefs and way of life. Like Bharateeyas, the ancient people of South America had a treasure trove of incredible wisdom, foods and a genuinely beautiful way of living in harmony with nature. One of their key foods was Salvia hispanica L. “Chia” (pronounced Chee-ah), domesticated approximately 5500 years before the Spanish Inquisition.

Chia was an integral part of the Aztec Indian diet along with maize, bean, amaranth and other indigenous vegetables. Obliteration of food culture is a battle strategy used to psychologically unhinge a population from their way of life. Ergo, Chia was removed from the diets of the Aztec Indians for centuries. It was even banned for a few centuries. However, the crop survived in high altitude regions of Jalisco, Michoacán, Puebla, etc. As prevalent as Chia is in the world now, it is unfortunate that with the centuries of prohibition of growing Chia and the prior conflict related challenges, the people lost knowledge of its traditional use. Ancient grains like Chia have an agronomic rusticity, the unchanged sequence of genes due to limited hybridization has its own nutritional advantages. Chia was a pure warrior ration for many cultures alongside that of the Aztec Indians of Mexico. A small quantity of these seeds would sustain a soldier in a myriad of battle conditions and provide adequate stamina and energy for optimum combat performance. Chia was also used as a form of currency; its value was immense to the ancient people who cultivated and consumed it.

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Changing diet over the march of time has been powered by changes in technologies and our way of life itself. With the advent of mass production bringing down the cost of processed foods, the globe had a spate of low cost, high fat, high refined sugar fast foods. Increase in obesity and reduced overall wellness shifted the food trend to seek foods rich in nutraceutical values which can augment wellness of the consumer. The public concerns of the presence of Trans Fats in processed foods also got a new awareness of good fats for wellness. Long chain unsaturated fatty acids have potential to improve health and wellness of people. The insufficient Omega-3 content in our diets today has become the point of discussion regarding the many setbacks in population health, spanning increases in cellular level inflammation to impaired immunity.

Globally there is an increase in lifestyle related disorders viz. diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular issues, etc. and there is also a continuing trend of malnutrition in various spectrums of population. A simple and inclusive strategy is needed to address population wellness. Understanding the health benefits of Chia, scientists from CSIR- Central Food Technological Research Institute, Mysuru developed agro technologies to grow Chia in Indian conditions through natural breeding processes. The institute gave White Chia seeds at no cost to farmers from across the nation and many robust farmer producer companies mushroomed to produce, process and sell Chia.

Chia is one of the richest sources of plant-based poly unsaturated fats (especially ALA). It is also rich in protein and fiber.

A recent fact sheet of WHO has shown that annually 41 million people succumb to non-communicable diseases (equivalent to 71% of all deaths globally). Most of these statistics are from low and middle-income nations. Eating an unhealthy diet, diets rich in highly processed foods and diets deficient in essential nutrients lead to various health setbacks. A study over decades by scientists across the world has indicated the relevance of long chain fatty acids and omega-3 fats for better wellness.

On an average, the daily need for omega-3 fat is about 1 gram. Chia seeds have 30% fat content, out of which 60% is Alpha Linolenic Acid that converts into Omega-3 in our system. Up to 15 grams of Chia can be consumed daily. Consumption of 3-5 grams of chia seeds daily will help get some omega-3 fats into our diet. As much as Chia is a nutritional supplement, having Chia as part of a diverse diet with all fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy protein options, (both plant and animal sources) etc. will certainly help augment wellness of the consumer.

Source: Stark et al., Progress in Lipid Research, 2016

The post-harvest process of Chia is elegantly simple. It needs surface cleaning with gravity, air and magnetic detection to remove any iron pieces from equipment / handling or soil. The seed simply needs to be washed well at home and consumed as a gel. Chia seeds when mixed in water and allowed to stand become a gel. This gel is easy to use as a base for desserts and beverages. Its neutral taste helps it blend into various dishes and it needs no cooking. Chia seeds are a great source of nutrition to all from pediatrics to geriatrics. Chia is also well suited for diets of military and police personnel, people doing heavy manual work, athletes, combative sports persons, including endurance sports persons. It not only has potential to improve physical endurance, it also has potential to improve cognitive performance.

About the Authors:
Dr. Deepa Prakash & Monica Kalvani
SaiYum Foods
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An editor by day & dreamer at night; passionately involved with both print and digital media; Pet lover; Solo traveller.

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