The Scoop on Chia Seed Benefits and How to Cook with Them

Here’s everything you wanted to know about these tiny, trendy seeds that are packed with nutrition.

Despite their small size, chia seeds are absolute powerhouses in the kitchen and are packed with vital nutrients. Chia seeds first became popular for their ability to grow on miniature terra-cotta figurines (remember Chia Pets?), but now these tiny superfoods are used in lots of recipes including creamy desserts and heart-healthy side dishes. "Chia seeds are consumed like a whole grain, but they're really a pseudo grain," explains Lisa Young, Ph.D., RDN, CDN, adjunct professor of nutrition at NYU, and author of Finally Full, Finally Slim ($22, Amazon). "Chia seeds have a mild taste and take on the flavor of what they are added to, and when chia seeds come in contact with liquid, they expand and form a gel. They are great in yogurt, smoothies, and salads."

pile of chia seeds on white background
Blaine Moats

What Is a Chia Seed?

Chia seeds are the edible portion from the Salvia hispanica, a desert plant that grows in Central America. Chia seeds are versatile in recipes since they can be eaten raw, soaked in water, ground into a chia seed powder, baked into recipes, or even used as a thickening agent to replace eggs or dairy in vegan recipes. "Chia seeds have a very mild, subtle flavor, and they typically take on the flavor of the other ingredients in the recipe," explains Elizabeth Adrian, RD, CDN, a former clinical dietitian at NYU Langone Medical Center. "However, their texture will vary significantly depending on whether you eat them raw, ground, or in liquid."

Types of Chia Seeds

Chia seeds can be black or white, yet the taste and nutritional values are virtually the same. Black chia seeds are often a bit smaller than white chia seeds, but both types can be used interchangeably in recipes and, when sprouted, those chia seeds add the extra benefit of chlorophyll. "The nutritional differences between black and white chia seeds are marginal," Adrian adds. "In fact, most chia seeds on the market today are grown as a mix of both black and white chia seeds."

Chia Seed Benefits

The benefits of chia seeds go beyond their unique texture and satisfying crunch. A single-ounce serving of chia seeds contains 138 calories, 4.7 grams of protein, 9 grams of fat, and 10 grams of dietary fiber. They are packed with alpha-linolenic acid (i.e., an omega-3 fatty acid) and are a great source of micronutrients, specifically potassium, magnesium, calcium, and iron. Chia seeds are naturally free of gluten and cholesterol.

"Chia is a good source of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids, which help us form hormones that quell inflammation," explains Celine Beitchman, director of Nutrition at the Institute of Culinary Education. "Using about one tablespoon of whole chia seeds as a guide, chia also provides a healthy dose of fiber, about 5 grams, which is as much as you get from half an avocado. Fiber's role in feeding the microbiome and the metabolites produced from that also point to anti-inflammatory benefits." Chia seeds are often touted for their ability to increase satiety—credit their high fiber content—which may make the body feel fuller longer.

Chia Pudding Bowl
Jacob Fox

How to Use Chia Seeds

Chia seeds can be eaten raw or added to recipes. Because the coating of chia seeds soaks up water rapidly, soaking chia seeds in milk or water for a few hours (or overnight) can give the seeds a tapioca pudding-like texture and makes them a great binder to hold baked goods together, like these Coconut-Chia Oat Crisps. The best way of soaking chia seeds is to combine 1 cup of liquid for every ¼ cup of seeds and let the mixture sit in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours.

Of course, you can skip soaking and use them other ways. "Pulse them into smoothies, make crackers, sprinkle them toasted into your favorite porridge or pilaf," suggests Beitchman. "For a nuttier profile, you can toast chia seeds in a 325°F oven for about 3 to 5 minutes until they become fragrant. Then add them to foods as you would the raw varieties."

Chia Seeds vs. Flaxseeds

"Whereas flaxseeds need to be ground to be digested and absorbed by the body, chia seeds can be consumed and fully absorbed in any form [whole, raw, ground, sprouted, etc.]," Adrian explains. "Both chia seeds and flaxseeds are high in fiber, omega-3s, and protein, so the biggest difference between chia seeds and flaxseeds is taste; chia seeds are essentially tasteless, and flaxseeds have a slightly nutty flavor."

How to Buy Chia Seeds

Look for chia seeds in your grocery store's health section or at any number of online retailers. Unlike most produce, organic chia seeds are often sold very near the same price point as non-organic brands. So when possible, an organic option is the better route to avoid seeds treated with pesticides, chemicals, or hormones.

How to Store Chia Seeds

Since chia seeds are high in polyunsaturated fats (omega-3s), they will go rancid under extreme conditions. Always store chia seeds in an airtight container ($13, Target). "Chia seeds can be kept for about 6 months to a more than a year, depending on how they are stored," Beitchman says. "You can check chia seeds for any unpleasant smell changes or physical changes to the packaging that might indicate air exchanges, which will shorten their shelf life."

Now that you've got the scoop on chia, start adding the nutritious seeds to your breakfast muffins, chocolate dessert, and even tuna to taste its versatility.

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