Gluten is a substance that forms when proteins in certain grains, such as wheat, combine with water. Chia, a tiny seed that comes from two kinds of sage plants, doesn't contain gluten, which is known for making dough stretchy. In gluten-free baking, gluten replacements are usually xanthan or agar gums. When people can't tolerate those binding agents, gluten-free bakers sometimes replace them with chia, which becomes sticky when combined with water. Chia may no longer be a joke for late-night TV.
The most extreme form of gluten sensitivity is celiac disease, a chronic autoimmune problem that is sometimes called gluten enteropathy. An enteropathy is a disease of the intestines. In celiac disease, the body creates an attack response against gluten that winds up destroying the tiny, hairlike villi and microvilli that help absorb nutrients in the intestines. Unchecked, the disease can lead to anemia, nutrition deficits and cancer. Some people don't have the disease, but they can still be sensitive to gluten and experience similar symptoms of discomfort, such as bloating and diarrhea.
Chia Distribution and History
Chia seeds come from two plants that are both referred to as "chia sage" -- golden sage, Salvia columbariae, and Spanish sage, S. hispanica. Golden sage is native to Arizona, California, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah. Spanish sage is an introduced species prevalent in Texas, Florida and New York. Native Americans and indigenous peoples of Mexico have used chia seeds for centuries as food and medicine. In addition to their use in tortillas, the seeds historically were ground into meal to make a mush called pinole and were soaked in water to create a thirst-quenching drink.
Medical uses of golden sage chia seed included poultices of heated seeds that were applied to infections. Spanish sage chia seeds were a component of many medical recipes due to its reputation for improving uptake of other medicines.
Today the tiny chia seed is being touted as a superfood instead of a gimmick for growing grass-like hair on terra cotta figures. The seeds of both sages are rich in fiber, protein and oil containing omega-3 fatty acids. For hundreds of years, the Tarahumara of Northern Mexico have consumed chia seed for quick energy boosts when running long distances. Nowadays, competitive ultra-marathoners also eat chia seed while running. Chia has also become the focus of dietary and medical research including diabetes. The "Czech Journal of Food Sciences" in 2012 reported that the addition of chia powder to corn tortillas reduced their glycemic index and that addition of chia powder to such carbohydrate-rich foods may lead to better blood glucose control for diabetics.
Chia in Gluten-Free Baking
As knowledge of gluten-free cooking expands, so does the number of alternative baking techniques appropriate for those with food sensitivities to ingredients including xanthan and guar gums. Adventurous gluten-intolerant bakers have begun ditching these ingredients altogether and are discovering that many recipes work without binding agents. However, when more structure is necessary in the final product -- such as when baking breads -- they are substituting sticky mixes of chia, water and other mucilaginous seeds, including flax. Unlike xanthan and agar, chia doesn't add gumminess to the texture of baked goods. Other gluten-free cooks, interested primarily in boosting the nutritional value of their diet, are adding the tiny, sesame-like seeds in dry form to dishes from pie crust to pasta.
- Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef: Chia Seeds and Flax Seeds
- Harvard Health Publications: Getting Out the Gluten
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: Plants Profile: Salvia Columbariae Benth. -- Chia
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: Plants Profile: Salvia Hispanica L. -- Chia
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: Plant Guide: CHIA Salvia Columbariae Benth.
- Natural Standard: Chia (Salvia Hispanica)
- National Public Radio: Chewing Chia Packs A Superfood Punch
- Czech Academy of Agricultural Sciences: Czech Journal of Food Sciences: Formulation, Physicochemical... Evaluation of Corn Tortillas Supplemented with Chía Seed
- La Tartine Gourmande: When Chia Seeds Meet an Apple Gallette
Alicia Rudnicki's Library Mix website blends book buzz for all ages. A gardener, she writes for California's Flowers by the Sea nursery. She has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from UC Berkeley, a Master of Arts in education from CU Denver, and has taught K-12.