One factor that always strikes as important when intaking superfoods with the aim of improving our health, is the level of digestibility and absorption. It’s all well and good knowing that these foods have all these fantastic nutrients, but how can we be sure our systems really utilising them as optimally as possible?
Differences in digestibility can be due to a variety of intrinsic characteristics such as fibre content,susceptibility to proteases, the configuration and any phytates, tannins or saponins present. Phytates or phytic acid is an anti-nutrient, undigestible by humans. They bind to certain vitamins and minerals in the intestines, such as magnesium, calcium, iron and zinc, and actually REMOVE them from our bodies! Mostly we find these in foods such as grains and legumes, however they are often also found in nuts and seeds. One way to reduce or remove these is via soaking.
Another important factor to consider can be the environment in which the food was originally grown. Many foods organically grown have been shown to often increase nutrient density and absorption significantly. Other influences include the structural modification of the food which can occur due to its process and preparation, such as temperature, grinding, soaking, sprouting etc.
So with all of this in mind, let’s get down to the nitty gritty. Chia Seeds and their digestibility. How can we make sure we’re getting the best out of these wonderful little darlings?
Well, there are many different ways to obtain chia. Often the seeds are ground down to a flour and baked in certain goods such as breads, soaked as a gel, blended, toasted, roasted, or simply eaten raw. All of these methods will no doubt effect the way chia is absorbed in the digestive process, and also affect the overall digestive process in general. There are a few experiments which have been carried out with the aim of determining which method is best, and with health in mind. One study carried out in Mexico showed some interesting results (read more about this study here).
Chia seeds bought from a local market in Leon, Guanajuato State, were treated in numerous ways. Some were toasted, some were ground into both a raw and toasted whole-seed flour, some were soaked and the rest left without any treatment.
The seeds were then analysed to determine the seed composition of protein, fat, ash, fibre, and humidity. All experiments were performed twice. Fascinatingly enough, the results showed that the toasted seeds appeared to increase both the protein content and digestibility; something that is known to occur in similar ways with certain vegetables. The reasons for this are questionable as it was actually more likely expected that the digestibility would have increased in the soaked seeds, especially those soaked in an acidic environment. Furthermore, it was found the raw seed, without any treatment, appeared to have the highest protein content. However, the highest value of digestibility overall was observed in chia flour, and this is likely due to the structural division of seed components exposed, allowing for greater enzyme action. (Enzymes break down the nutrients from food in order to facilitate their absorption by the body. One way of encouraging the production of more of these is to chew more carefully and for longer when intaking our food, as the saliva mixing with the food helps this reaction to occur to its best ability.)
What might surprise you is that chia seed has been shown to actually have low digestibility, particularly protein digestibility. Still, don’t let you put this off, as it has also been shown to slow digestion, influencing blood sugar levels and subsequent hunger levels in a highly positive way, whereby subjects feel fuller and more energetic for longer. The seeds, despite their technically low digestibility have actually been shown to improve digestion.
One method that has been shown to enhance the bioavailability and digestible properties of foods is sprouting. Perhaps this is the way to really transport chia seed to its maximum potential and get the best from all the wonderful things it has to give! Chewing chia seed sprouts can improve digestibility due to the infusing of all the nutrients, chlorophyll and enzymes with the saliva together.
On a slight tangent, perhaps another way to incorporate some of curative effects could be to steep some chia leaves themselves into a tea. Chia tea is actually widely used in Japan for its medicinal properties and has been shown to be a great aid as a blood cleanser and tonic, useful in all matter of things such as general pain relief, arthritis, diabetes, blood pressure, cholesterol, diarrhea, calming fevers and mouth ulcers, and helping with respiratory and nervous system problems. It could also be very useful for those entering or dealing with the menopause, as women experiencing hot flushes have found great relief by regularly drinking chia tea. It really is wonderful just how potent the properties of tea can be!