Chia’s Weird and Secretive Journey to Superfood Stardom

Chia. What a story. These ancient and sacred seeds date back about 3500 years as a food staple in equatorial South America and more recently were right in the middle of the world-changing 15th-century argument between the Aztecs and Spanish Conquistadors. Later, the seeds came into full-blown name recognition as the hair-growing ingredient in Chia pets. Why the fall from greatness?

Spain: “See Ya, Chia”

When in the late 15th century the Spanish arrived to possess what came to be called New Spain, they were not entirely surprised to find an indigenous culture already there. The Aztecs were fierce warriors with a complex socio-religious scheme that involved, to Spain’s horror, ritual human sacrifice. Chia seeds were part of this sacrificial tradition. Chia was so venerated for its nearly mystical strength-boosting properties, it was offered as a tribute to high Aztec Priests.

Once Europe made their way over to put their stamp on things, how long could that last?

The Spanish Conquistadors wanted to wipe the slate clean and remake New Spain in its own image. Chia seeds were carrying too much Aztec religious baggage to be allowed to make that transition, and so were one of the first crops to get the heave-ho. Chia agriculture went underground for about 500 years, the plant that yields chia seeds, Salvia hispanica, grown in only a handful of small plots far from the centers of power and agro-censorship.

A Mystical Seed’s Stealth Comeback

By the mid-1800s, Mexican pharma began making passing references to chia in its literature. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that chia began to make a popular breakthrough as a superfood that was good for more than growing green hair on a decorative terra cotta puppy.

Since 1980, Joseph Enterprises had been marketing Chia Pets using chia seeds and their fine grassy output to sell the decorative windowsill novelty. The San Francisco-based company had established relationships with farmers, had buttoned down the supply chain, the knew the chia market cold – they thought.

You Can Eat The Stuff?

It wasn’t till a friend telephoned Joseph Enterprises’ VP of Marketing and Advertising, Michael Hirsh, that the door was kicked open. The friend, a drug store owner, told Hirsch they were moving a lot of Hirsch’s tiny seeds; not as green hair but as something to eat. His customers were demanding it, calling it a superfood. Could Hirsch get more? Hirsch quickly pivoted, brought his marketing acumen to bear on reframing the chia conversation, and dove in. Joseph Enterprises figured out how to cross consumer categories, from novelty item to nutrition supernova, and the chia superfood train left the station with all pistons firing.

So what’s the chia fuss? Chia seeds are a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, antioxidants, iron, and calcium. A 28-gram serving of chia seeds contains 5.6 grams of protein; a hefty portion of the whole. When mixed with water, chia seeds soak up about 12 times their volume in a scant 10 minutes, producing a nutrient-packed gel that can texturally replace an egg in vegan cooking.

Protein, dietary fiber, calcium, potassium, magnesium, and an antioxidant sucker punch make these almost ridiculously tiny seeds a big deal. The Aztecs were focused on the heart, yes—but…not in a way that informs modern fitness. Still; we should thank them for chia seeds, and the great heart work this ancient power booster is doing today.

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