The Secret Of Chia: An Interview with James (Jim)F. Scheer

Whole Foods magazine

March 2001

The Secret Of Chia: An Interview with James (Jim)F. Scheer

By Richard A. Passwater, Ph.D.

In his new book, The Magic of Chia. (Revival of an Ancient Wonder Food), James (Jim) E Scheer reminds us that Thomas Jefferson once said, "No service can be rendered to a country that is more valuable than to introduce a new plant to the culture." Since chia is not a new plant, you may want to ask what my point is? Why would I want to write about chia anyway? Did I get too many Chia pets for Christmas? Well, you may want to eat your chia pet when you see what Jim Scheer has to say about the health benefits of this ancient superfood.

OK, so chia seed is old, not new. But Jefferson would look with even more pride on anyone rescuing a superfood and making its benefits available to people in the fight against obesity and diabetes and the struggle to build endurance and energy. Many of our readers already know of the performance and endurance enhancement that Native Americans have attributed to chia seeds, but there is much more to the chia story than this.

As modern processed foods are major factors in our people becoming obese and diabetic, it is indeed fortunate that ancient foods such as kamut and amaranth have been reintroduced commercially. Chatting with Jim Scheer gives us a chance to rediscover the benefits of chia seed, and also to remind ourselves of some of the basic tenets on which the health food movement was founded.

One of the joys of trade shows and conventions is to see longtime friends again and reminisce. If you stroll by the publishers' booths, you can count on catching a nutrition writer signing books or sitting around and chewing the proverbial fat with other authors. One of my favorite writers-a real wordsmith-is Jim Scheer. At the 2000 NNFA convention, I asked Jim what he was writing now. He handed me his manuscript for "The Magic of Chia," which led to this interview.

Jim and I have been friends for more than 25 years. Harold Taub was my first editor in this field and Jim Scheer was my second. It was Harold who introduced me to Jim. It was Harold and Jim who encouraged me-a research scientist-to write about my findings for the public. Jim, Harold and I ended up being longtime friends and writing countless articles about nutrition.

Well, there is more to the story than just writing and teaching about nutrition. Long before my association with the health food industry, I was doing basic biochemical research for American Gerontological Research Laboratories. Harold Taub, then executive editor of Prevention magazine, was following my research by way of reading published scientific articles. In 1971, Robert Rodale was editor and publisher, but it was Harold who assigned his staff to compile an article on slowing the aging process. My research was featured, and 1 have been told that this was the first lay article that mentioned antioxidant nutrients, free radicals and selenium.

That was the beginning. Harold talked me into writing several more pieces for Prevention. I reported on various antioxidant supplements and their impact on health and aging. This, in turn, led to my book, Supernutrition: Megavitamin Revolution, which was published in 1975. To my surprise, Supernutrition reached number four on the best-seller list and went on to 16 combined hardback and soft-cover printings. In all, more than 1,400,000 combined copies were printed, introducing untold numbers of readers to megavitamin therapy.

In 1974, Prevention sponsored my epidemiological study, which was the first to show that vitamin E is protective against heart disease. This study was published in detail in several installments in Prevention throughout 1976. Mark Bricklin was the editor. As you can see, research led to writing, writing led to more research and that, in turn, led to more writing.

As I mentioned, Harold introduced me to Jim Scheer, who was the editor of Let's Live. Jim also has been the editor of FoodWise and Health Freedom News. He is not only a top editor, but an eloquent writer. He has 22 books to his credit, including the bestsellers Solved: The Riddle of Illness with Stephen Langer, M.D. and Foods That Heal with Maureen Salaman. More than 2,000 of his articles and columns have appeared in 100 national magazines.

One of Jim's non-health books served as the basis for The Race for Space, a 60-minute documentary that was nominated for an Academy Award and was voted winner in its category at the San Francisco International Film Festival. This demonstrates Jim's attention to detail and engaging writing style.

I have devoted this much space to Jim's background so that you understand he is not just a reporter writing about something that he "researched" in the library. Jim has been there through most of the health food movement and has known most of the important pioneers. When he expressed interest in something as unlikely as chia seed, I had to know why. Hopefully, you'll be interested too.

Passwater: How did you first become interested in chia?

Scheer: In the 1970s, when I was editor of Let's Live magazine, a Southern California health food store assistant manager asked me to write an article about the wonders of chia seed. This electrically-charged, 72-year-old man attributed his longevity and abundant energy to eating, chia seeds daily.

I told him that I couldn't do that, because this would create a demand for chia seed that health food stores couldn't full fill. After all, chia seed was available only on rare occasions when someone picked some wild seed in the deserts of the south western U.S. or northern Mexico and then decided to market it.

Passwater: When most people hear of "chia seed," they think of the "Chia pet," not a superfood. Please tell us a little about its history.

Scheer: It used to grow so plentifully in the wild that pre-Columbian Aztecs, Mayas, Tebuantepecs and Indians of the desert southwest of what is now the United States ate chia seed as a staple food. Chia seeds imparted high energy, endurance and good health to these people. Chia can thrive with little water and you can still find it growing in the wild today, but it hasn't been grown in supplies large enough for commercial use. That is, until recently.

Passwater: The Aztecs also ate amaranth and quinoa as staples along with corn and beans.

Scheer: They consumed more chia as seeds and flour than they did amaranth. At first, it was reserved as food for the Aztec emperors. Inter, chia even became legal tender for the paying of taxes, and by the end of the 121h century, long before the "New World" got in the way of an India-bound explorer named Christopher Columbus, chia was a staple food of the masses as well as of royalty.

Passwater: What is different about chia that makes it a superfood as opposed to just being another good food.

Scheer: Chia is almost a perfect food. By that I mean that chia is a complete protein source having all of the essential amino acids in an appropriate balance. Chia seed is between 19% and 23% protein by weight, which is higher than that of other seeds and grains.

Chia seeds are a rich source of essential fatty acids, containing three-to-four times the oil concentrations of most grains. About 60% of chia seed oil is alpha linolenic acid, whereas soybean oil and canola oil contain less than 10% of this essential omega-3 fatty acid.

Chia seeds are a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids and have a favorable omega-3 to omega-6 ratio of 3:2. Modern diets are way out of balance with too little omega-3 fatty acids.

Passwater: Some of our readers may find the naming of fatty acids confusing. All fats and oils are not the same. One of the important differences is whether they are saturated or unsaturated. Both types are important, but in different places for different things. Only the two polyunsaturated fatty acids linoleic acid (LA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) are dietary essential, meaning that they can't be made in the body. Other fats and oils can be made from them by our bodies.

Another important difference is whether a fatty acid is omega-3 or omega-6. The omega number merely refers to how close to the end of the fatty acid molecule the first double bond occurs. If the first double bond is three carbons from the end, the fatty acid is called an omega-3 fatty acid. If the first double bond is six carbons from the end, it is called an omega-6 fatty acid.

As mentioned, ALA is one of the two fatty acids known to be essential. It is an omega-3 fatty acid having 18 carbon atoms and three double bonds. The other essential fatty acid, IA, is an omega-6 fatty acid also having 18 carbon atoms, but only two double bonds. Adding to the confusion is gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), which has 18 carbon atoms and three double bonds, as does ALA. The critical difference is that GLA is an omega-6 fatty acid.

Sorry to interrupt you Jim, but I wanted all of the readers to understand these distinctions.

Scheer: That's quite all right. As I was saying, chia seeds also are rich in the beneficial long-chain triglycerides that help maintain the proper wall flexibility of cells and restore the proper cholesterol /triglyceride ratio. This keeps our cell membranes soft and pliable, facilitating receptors in the membrane to work to bring vital compounds to regulate the cell and to provide easy entry for oxygen and nutrients and an easy exit for carbon dioxide and wastes.

Chia seeds also are rich in calcium and boron, both of which are needed for strong teeth and bones. They also feature high antioxidant levels, a result of their substantial content of bioflavonoids, flavonol glycosides, and the organic acids, chlorogenic acid and caffeic acid.

Passwater: I know of only two varieties of chia-the Salvia columbariae and the Salvia hispanica. Is one of these nutritionally superior to the other? Are there other varieties?

Scheer: There are several types of chia, but only the Salvia hispanica and Salvia columbariae are of nutritional value for humans. The other chias are too high in fiber and/or are of little seed yield and too difficult to harvest.

The Salvia Hispanics and Salvia columbariae are about the same nutritionally, and the Salvia hispanica is the chia that has been domesticated. It belongs to the mint family and has clusters of blue (lowers. The important factor about the Salvia hispanica is that the seeds are in the flower in good yield, which makes this variety less difficult to harvest. The Salvia columbariae, on the other hand, has its seeds in bulbs at the tot) of the plants, which are surrounded by sharp stickers. Not only is this variety difficult to domesticate, it also is more (difficult to harvest.

Passwater: The health food community has looked upon chia seeds as the endurance food of many Native American tribes. Chia often is called the "Indian Running Food." In your book, you relate many amazing stories in which the runners attribute their great ability to chia seeds. I would think that training is more important than any one superfood itself. You just can't eat chia seeds and become a marathon runner. On the other hand, you won't have much endurance on a junk food diet. But, you point out in your book that there is more to the endurance factor of chia seed than being a good food. First, kindly recount for us one of these anecdotes and then tell us why chia seeds actually may account for the phenomenal endurance.

Scheer: In 1997, Cirildo Chacarito, a 52year old Tarahumara Indian, won a 100mile run in California sponsored by a major athletic shoe company. He completed this feat in a time of 19 hours, 37 minutes and three seconds. He beat a field of hundreds of competitors who had more than a half-hour head start. On his feet, he wore only his home-made tire tread shoes, to the shoe sponsor's embarrassment.

Passwater: That got a lot of people's attention. You have many other stories, including some from Paul Bragg and Harrison Doyle. You also tell how Native Americans could run all clay on just chia seeds and water. How they would run clown deer by chasing them all day as seen in the movie The last of the Mohicans, how they would run for days to accomplish trades with other tribes, how they would run all day playing a game with goals 25 miles apart.

Well, Paul Bragg was certainly fit, and if he said chia increased his endurance, that's saying a lot. But, you also tell of the test he gave chia with a control group. These are interesting anecdotes, but not rigorous scientific studies. But, there are enough verified anecdotes to cause one to look at the science behind the anecdotes.

I'm sure the optimization of body fuels and insulin has a lot to do with the endurance increase. Tell us some of the reasons why you believe that chia seeds improve endurance.

Scheer: One reason is that although chia seeds are digested easily, they absorb more than seven times their weight in water and form a gel that causes a slow release of carbohydrates and an equally slow conversion of carbohydrates into glucose (blood sugar) for energy. The outer layer of chia seeds is rich in mucilloid soluble fiber. This mucilloid is intended to keep the seeds from drying out in the arid desert air. When chia seeds are mixed with water or stomach juices, a gel forms that creates a physical barrier between the carbohydrates and the digestive enzymes that break them down. The carbohydrates are digested eventually, but at a slow and uniform rate. There is no insulin surge or spike needed to lower the blood sugar level after eating chia. The water-retaining ability of the gel also helps level out the water intake and retain electrolyte balance.

Passwater: Your book, The Magic of Chia, is not intended especially for athletes. In your book, you speak more to other health benefits than you speak to energy and endurance. For example, you explain how chia helps people control their weight.

Scheer: Mixed with orange or other fruit juice, the gel-like seeds make a nutritious breakfast and can help control excess weight. Users report that a glass full of orange juice leaves one feeling full and without hunger until noon.

It's the slow release of carbohydrates anti resultant slow conversion to blood sugar that keeps the need for insulin low. The effect of the slow digestion of carbohydrates is to prevent wide swings in blood sugar. When blood sugar rises, insulin is released to control it. What usually happens is that the insulin secretion overshoots, causing the blood sugar level to plummet, and this, in turn, causes sharp hunger pangs.

Passwater: In The Magic of Chia, you also explain how Chia seeds may prevent and / or overcome type 2 (non-insulin dependent ) diabetes.

Scheer: Again, it's the slow release of carbohydrates and resultant slow conversion to blood sugar that keeps the need for insulin low.

When Native Americans consume their traditional diets, they are essentially free of diabetes. When they adopt Western diets, they run a 47% rate of diabetes. Clinical studies have shown that when they refrain from the Western diet and return to their native diet including chia seed, they can control and even eliminate diabetes.

Passwater: How about enlarged prostates?

Scheer: Many have responded to a daily drink containing a tablespoon of chia seed (soaked in a glass full of water until gelatinous). When used for 20 to 30 consecutive days, this may lessen the problem. Probably this effect is due to the omega-3 fatty acids.

Passwater: Can you easily sprout chia seeds to make a vitamin- and protein rich food?.

Scheer: Yes. However, chia seeds are too sticky for conventional sprouting jars. They do sprout very readily when spread out on earthenware. Thus, the Chia pet! The Mexicans have long made earthenware in the shapes of heads and pigs to grow chia sprouts. They dubbed the head the equivalent to "Hairless Harry" and delighted to see Hairless Harry grow green hair. Meanwhile, even the sprout bags sold in many health food stores are very efficient for sprouting chia seeds. So eat your chia pet sprouts.

Passwater: Maybe. What do they taste like?

Scheer: Somewhat like, but better than, watercress.

Passwater: I'm more interested in eating the seeds for endurance and appetite control, than eating the sprouts for taste. Are there good ways to take advantage of the seeds, other than chewing them and drinking water?

Scheer: Many prefer to soak the seeds for about a half hour until the gel is formed, then mix with orange, lime or other fruit juice. Some add honey to sweeten, but that is not needed and may be defeating the purpose. Water or any juice is all that is needed for a refreshing drink.

Another way of enjoying the benefits of chia is to make a gel by adding nine parts of water to one part chia. You can use this chia gel in various ways. One convenient way of creating this gel is to put the water in a sealable container and slowly pour the chia seed into the water while briskly mixing with a wire whisk. This process will avoid any clumping of the seed. Wait a couple of minutes, whisk again and let stand for five to 10 minutes. Whisk once more before using or storing in the refrigerator. Chia gel will keep for up to two weeks.

You can add the gel as a topping on your morning breakfast cereal. Chia is low in calories and can be eaten in hundreds of ways. In gel form, it can be added to hot cereals-oatmeal, cornmeal, wheat-to hot cakes, waffles and French toast batter and scrambled with eggs. It is a great food extender, calorie-cutter and nutrient-enricher. Its gel can be added to mayonnaise; you actually can double the volume of the mayonnaise by adding an equal amount of chia gel. Added to a spread such as butter, it reduces calories by 45% per total volume without changing the taste. It also does this for salad dressings, peanut butter and other nut spreads. Mix it with dips, yogurt, puddings, milkshakes and malts and any juice bar drinks. We add the gel to home-baked goods, too.

Many mothers compensate for the low nutritive value foods kids eat by adding chia gel to them. Chia gel displaces rather than dilutes, so it creates more surface area and actually can enhance the flavor of whatever you are adding the gel to, rather than diluting the flavor.

In my book, I offer about 100 chia recipes-for soups, salads, main dishes, breakfasts, breadings, sauces, dressings, kids' recipes and desserts. These were created by Linda Barrett and Bill Anderson, who formed the civic organization Menu 4 Life in order to upgrade meals served in school cafeterias nation-wide (see They also are co-founders of the chia seed advisory board, with Dr. Bernadette McNulty, who serves as president (see

Barrett and Anderson also have developed all educational research program called Solutions, which focuses on nutritional intervention for the cognitive development of children based on the 1998 research at Tufts University (see In addition to encouraging inspiring children to participate in healthy recipes that are presented for a school lunch program, Solutions includes recipe development for evaluating the nutritional profile of the schools' food service programs, with chia seed being among the main ingredients for the food development.

One of the most fascinating chapters in the book is "Seed Foods: Buffer Against Cancer," featuring the research of Walter 'troll, Ph.D., professor of environmental medicine at New York University.

Passwater: To whom do we owe thanks for making chia commercially accessible?

Scheer: Bob Andersen of Valley Center, CA. Bob spent 20 years and considerable funds in learning to domesticate this plant. His struggle is described in the chapter "Domesticating the Wild Chia." If our readers have any questions, they can contact Bob directly at

Passwater: Thanks, Jim. The Magic of Chia was scheduled to be published near the beginning of February, shortly after this interview was concluded. WF


2001 Whole Foods Magazine and Richard A. Passwater, Ph.D.

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