It isn’t nonsensical hype but neither are chia seeds some sort of wonder product. A plant growing from a seed is pretty amazing. So is the hype that grows from a seed of truth in the area of nutritional supplements. Salba is a case in point. What is it? A grain that originated in South America and is reputed to have been revered by the Aztecs because it served as a source of energy for their runners. I don’t know that, but I do know that the seeds served as the source of the “hair” that sprouted from those little ceramic novelty animals known as “Chia Pets.” Indeed, it was the speed with which those salba sprouts grew that intrigued University of Toronto researcher Vlad Vuksan. Did these seeds have some special property, he wondered? Chemical analysis showed that they were an excellent source of alpha linolenic acid, an omega three fat, as well as of fiber. Vuksan, whose research focuses on the nutritional aspects of type 2 diabetes became interested because of accumulating evidence that whole grains can play a role in reducing the risk of diabetes and heart disease. And then the next thing we know is that Salba is being touted by a commercial enterprise as “Nature’s Most Powerful Whole Food,” and people are shelling out money for the seeds that according to the marketers “have been extensively researched at the University of Toronto.”
Now, Vuksan is a respected researcher, but the evidence in this case constitutes one published paper that describes a trial with just twenty subjects. And the results are not what one would call dramatic. The subjects were all type 2 diabetics, so the results cannot be automatically extended to the general public. Everyday they consumed either an average of 37 grams of salba seeds or an equivalent amount of wheat bran. That’s a lot of seed, about six tablespoons. The hope was that salba would help with blood glucose control, but it did no better than the bran. On the other hand it did reduce the systolic blood pressure by some 6 mm of Hg, which is significant. Salba also reduced C-reactive protein which is a measure of inflammation and had a small effect on reducing the blood’s clotting ability. These are welcome changes since diabetics are at increased risk for heart disease. But they hardly justify the hype that has been created by advertisers on behalf of salba. We hear comments that just 3.5 ounces of salba has as much omega-3 fats as 28 ounces of salmon and as much calcium as 3 cups of milk and as much iron as five cups of raw spinach. Well, 3.5 ounces is 97 grams, almost three times as much as was used in the study, which already was a large amount. People who take the “recommended” dose on the package would take 12 grams a day, which yields a trivial amount of calcium and iron. Furthermore, the type of omega-3 in salba is not the type we find in fish. And if it comes to that, flax is a much cheaper source of vegetable based omega-3 fats. Yes, eating whole grains is a good idea, but before we attribute any magical properties to salba we need more than one small study on diabetics that shows a modest decline in some cardiovascular risk factors but shows nothing about disease outcome. For now, I’m not slaughtering and eating my Chia pet.