Do Chia Seeds Live Up to the Hype?

Of all the folks out there peddling miracle weight-loss products, Dr. Oz may be the most pernicious. The fact that he's a medical professional lends his endorsements a flavor of incontrovertible authority, and sales of anything he deems a "super food" inevitably skyrocket. But, as has been documented elsewhere, the evidence to back up his claims can be pretty thin. From acai berries to green coffee beans, Oz is the master of "discovering" the "secrets" of natural products, but nobody's holding him accountable to his claims--even though he has plenty of incentive to prioritize ratings over results.

For that reason alone, chia seeds are worthy of a little skepticism. Oz, who started the chia seed craze by promoting them on an episode of "Oprah," has been making incredible claims about their abilities for the better part of five years. If he's to be believed, chia seeds give you more energy by day and help you sleep better at night, reduce cravings for unhealthy foods, make you feel fuller faster, make your hair shinier and can even be used as a facial exfoliant. Because they expand in your stomach, he claims, they give you the sensation of satiety without all the evil calories you'd generally need to walk away from the table happy.

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There's certainly nothing wrong with eating chia seeds. They're high in protein, fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, taste pleasant and can be eaten unprocessed. They can also be added to smoothies and baked goods, sprinkled on top of cereals and yogurts, or dissolved in water or juice to make a gelatinous "pudding." For an afternoon snack or a little something to add crunch to your salad, you could certainly do a lot worse.

Chia was an important crop to the Aztecs, but farming of it diminished as Spanish settlements took root in South America. That means that, similarly to quinoa, chia has stayed free of some of the hallmarks of commercial cultivation, including hybridizing and genetic modification. Today, chia is still produced by small Latin American growers, but around half of the world's chia is actually farmed in Australia, which can also provide the ideal environment--the seed's long growing season means subtropical climates are ideal. A VC-backed company called US Chia is working to cultivate a strain of the seed that will grow in rainier conditions, enabling it to be farmed on a large scale in the United States.

That company's investors have bet big on the future commercial success of chia. But when it comes to the outlandish claims that chia seeds decrease appetite and promote weight loss--which are the primary reasons for their popularity--the jury is still pretty much out. In one twelve-week study of people who ate 50 grams of chia seeds a day, none of them lost weight or body fat or improved their cardiovascular health in any way. A few studies with tiny cohorts have suggested some benefits for the overweight or diabetic, but they're not statistically significant.

In fact, the chia seed studies with the most exciting results were all performed on laboratory animals, and their findings have yet to be reproduced in humans. Animal research is valuable because it can point investigators in promising directions, but it shouldn't automatically be assumed to apply to people. Oz is known for blowing the results of animal studies way out of proportion, but you don't need a medical degree or a TV show to know that your body is a little different from that of a rat.

It's tempting to think that incorporating just one item into your daily diet could revolutionize your life, but the hard truth is that "super foods" are only super to the people hawking them. Again and again, clinical research shows that there's no substitute for eating a healthy, balanced diet and getting a lot of exercise. Chia seeds are unquestionably good for you, but they're not a miracle.

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