Science and Tradition Kiss

Text and photo © Christine Maxa

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Chia Seeds (Salvia columbariae)


When the Spaniards first eyed the Aztec city of Teotihuacán, Bernal Díaz del Castillo (who wrote an account of the conquest under Hernán Cortés) gushed, “we were amazed and said that it was like the enchantments they tell of in the legend of Amadis... And some of our soldiers even asked whether the things we saw were not a dream…I do not know how to describe it seeing things as we did that had never been heard of or seen before, not even dreamed about (Garcia, 1898).” The mystical aztecatl kingdom’s Tenochtitlan, a bit smaller than classical Rome and bustling with 200,000 residents, introduced many incredible things to the Spaniards. One of the most enduring has been the tiny chia seed.


An Indigenous Be-All


The Old World never heard of the Mint Family member, but chia played a major role in the diets of the indigenous. The chia seed (nutlet, technically) popped up in unrelated uses all over the Aztec kingdom. It appeared, according to information on 16th century codices created by the Spaniards regarding their conquest, on banquet tables lavishly laden with all sorts of delectables, from wild game to garden fare, fish, and fruits to things like “locusts with chía.” The indigenous would wash the celebratory chow down with a drink combining corn and chia with chiles or honey.


Chia oil was used as a base for perfumes and added to paints. The 16th Century codices written by the Spaniards with paints created by the indigenous with chia seed oil (which does not yellow with age) remain, “even after five centuries, unsurpassed for their brilliant colors and clarity” (Ayerza, Coates, 2005). The oil protects colors from air and water and imparts “a shine to colors (Ibid.)” much like the flaxseed oil, so familiar to the Spaniards.


Medicinally, the Aztecs used chia seeds in a drink for fever and respiratory issues. And they included chia seeds in their religious ceremonies.


In their obsession to quash the Aztecs' religious culture, the Spaniards banned chia, and the seeds disappeared off the radar screen of the civilized world.


Chia In the New World


The Spaniards soon discovered they could run, but they could not hide from the Great Chia. When they continued their conquest into today’s southern California, they ran into the chia seed crowd once again. The indigenous “presented or sold” (Timbrook, 1986) seeds to explorers.


In 1875, academia discovered chia. While working on a geographical survey team, botanist Joseph Rothrock noticed “a mealy preparation in use among the Indians, Mexicans, and prospectors” (USGS Report West of the One Hundredth Meridian, 1879). Dr. Rothrock went on to gush, “It is in great demand among the knowing ones who have a desert to cross, or who expect to encounter a scarcity of water” because “used as a drink, it seems to assuage the thirst” and “it is invaluable, from its demulcent properties, in cases of gastro-intestinal disorders.”


Those demulcent properties come from the seed’s fiber, some 75-percent of which remains insoluble. The soluble remnant remains more viscose than other dietary fibers, such as guar gum. This slows down its transit time through the intestines and slows glucose absorption.


Prospector, Adolph Bulla, born about the time Rothrock discovered chia, would find out for himself that the seeds were “handy grub to take along on a prospecting trip.” He explained the seeds supplied the same energy as bulkier foods and, generally, “helped him retain his good health and happiness” (Hodgson, 2001).


So just what does the tiny chia seed have that could keep native peoples upright on a forced march, prospectors healthy and happy, and modern health gurus touting fantastic (and often true) health claims? The USDA nutritional database states the chia seed contains 16-percent protein, 31-percent fat (mostly omega-3 ALA), and 44-percent carbohydrate (mostly fiber). The seeds come packed with enough antioxidants to preserve indefinitely. And where there are antioxidants, there’s anti-inflammatory action.


One of chia’s antioxidants, tanshinone, imparts anti-inflammatory activity found to “possess broad-range anticancer potential” (Yong et al., 2012) One study found tanshinone limited the effects of oxidation “similar to vitamin E and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT),” and “markedly stronger than NaN3, mannitol, and superoxide dismutase (SOD)” (Cao et al., 1996). Remember the paints?


Another study stated tanshinone aids in repairing damaged brain and heart cells (Adams et al., 2006). Chia seeds contain not only tanshinones, but “a unique lithospermic acid, which decreases blood clots and increases blood flow, found only in chia. Both compounds restore the functions of brain and heart cells” (Adams, Garcia, 2005).


Even more compelling is an Adams-Garcia study that explores the reference to chia as the plant Chamash legend refers to as ilepesh and used to “wake the dead or the nearly dead” (Adams et al., 2005). The researchers deduced the Chumash used the root, like the Chinese presently do from a similar species “found to be very effective at preventing death from stroke” to revive heart attack and stroke victims. To make a long story short, the study concluded the chemistry was two to three times higher in our Southwest species S. columbariae than the Chinese species S. militiorrhiza.


Does scientific research agree? Here’s what one research group (Adams, et al., 2006) came up with:


"Tanshinones “are neuroprotective in cerebral ischemia and reperfusion,” are “protective against myocardial ischemia and reperfusion,” are “also anti-inflammatory agents,” “inhibit interleukin-12 and interferon-y production,” and “inhibits arachidonic acid metabolism by phospholipase A2;” also “Lithospermic acid B is antihypertensive and is protective against cerebral and myocardial ischemia and reperfusion.”


In other words, yes. When it comes to chia, science and tradition kiss.

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