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You've heard of goji, acai and quinoa. Now meet chia, the latest "superfood."

Proponents swear by the small seeds, claiming they have more omega-3 fatty acids than salmon, huge amounts of antioxidants and are excellent sources of protein and fibre. Early adopters claim chia seeds can help you lose weight, improve heart health and reduce inflammation. But do the health claims stack up, or are they just hype?

What is chia anyway?

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Chia seeds are an ancient food that belong to the mint family and were originally grown in Mexico and Central America. But they are experiencing a popularity surge, thanks in part to their mention in Christopher McDougall's bestselling book Born to Run.

Because they have a mild taste, the seeds can be added to any variety of meals, said Wayne Coates, author of Chia: The Complete Guide to the Ultimate Superfood, which will be released in Canada next month. Sprinkle them on yogurt or salad, add them to smoothies or juice, use milled seeds for baking or soak the seeds until they form a gel that can be added to a variety of recipes.

Chia is a nutritional powerhouse, according to Dr. Coates, professor emeritus in arid lands studies at the University of Arizona, who earned a PhD in agricultural engineering. He says the seeds are loaded with vitamins and minerals, are an excellent source of fibre, protein and antioxidants, and are the richest plant source of omega-3 fatty acids. Consumption of chia seeds could help reduce joint pain, aid in weight loss, deliver an energy boost and protect against serious ailments such as diabetes and heart disease.

The seeds are gluten-free, which also makes them appealing to people with celiac disease or an aversion to gluten.

"It really has some remarkable characteristics," he said.

Do the health claims add up?

The case for adding chia seeds to your kitchen cupboard is strong. Doug Cook, a Toronto-based dietitian, agrees with claims that chia delivers protein, fibre and antioxidants. "It is worth the hype in the sense that it packs a lot of bang for the buck," he said.

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There's reason to be suspicious of one of chia's big selling points, however. While the seeds are high in omega-3 fatty acids, not all omega-3s are created equal.

Chia seeds are a source of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a type of "short-chain" omega-3 fatty acid, whereas fish is a source of the "long-chain" fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). While growing research has linked consumption of EPA and DHA to heart health, improved brain function and possible other health benefits such as improvement in depression or rheumatoid arthritis, the same isn't true for ALA, which is found in chia and other plant sources.

The body does convert some ALA to DHA and EPA, but only in small amounts.

And while there is evidence that ALA is good for us, Mr. Cook points out that most people consume plenty of it in a day as it is (ALA is found in canola oil, flaxseed, spinach, soybeans, etc.). He added that chia seeds aren't particularly high in vitamins or minerals.

The bottom line

Chia seeds have a significant nutritional value, but are they a superfood? Perhaps not. The fact chia seeds don't provide EPA and DHA means you shouldn't eat them hoping to get the same benefits you might if you consumed fish oil. Either way, Mr. Cook said he dislikes the term because it implies that one product has the ability to make an individual healthy.

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"[Superfood]doesn't mean anything. It's a marketing tool," he said.

This is a monthly column that investigates the claims behind health products and food.

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About the Author

Carly Weeks has been a journalist with The Globe and Mail since 2007.  She has reported on everything from federal politics to the high levels of sodium in the Canadian diet. More

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