Seeds of Wellness: Return of a Supergrain: The Aztec Civilization May Never Rise Again, but Part of Its Ancient Legacy May Be a Gift of Better Health to Those Who Have Rediscovered the Secret of Its Prized "Running Food."

By Kreiter, Ted | The Saturday Evening Post, November-December 2005 | Go to article overview

Seeds of Wellness: Return of a Supergrain: The Aztec Civilization May Never Rise Again, but Part of Its Ancient Legacy May Be a Gift of Better Health to Those Who Have Rediscovered the Secret of Its Prized "Running Food."


Kreiter, Ted, The Saturday Evening Post


In the annals of nutrition history, the last half-century may well be considered the age of the supergrains. Starting in the 1960s, Dr. Norman Borlaug developed disease-resistant dwarf wheat and sparked the "Green Revolution" in Asia; Purdue University researchers discovered opaque-2 maize, with the mutation that doubles the protein value of corn; and Canadian researchers developed triticale, the long-sought cross between barley and wheat. But what may be the most functional of all the supergrains still remains virtually unknown. It is the tiny seed of the Salvia hispanica L. plant, better known as chia, the same plant family used to grow furry foliage on those popular chia pets.

In chia's previous, more glorious existence, it served as the power food of the ancient Aztec civilization. According to Spanish manuscripts, the Aztecs ate the seeds of this semitropical plant to improve their endurance. They called chia their "running food" because messengers reportedly could run all day on just a handful. The Aztecs prized chia more highly than gold. They even used it as medicine. When the Aztec civilization ended, the much-vaunted grain fell into relative obscurity. Now, after half a millennium, chia is poised for a comeback in something other than a pottery animal.

Scientists investigating chia since the 1990s have found the grain surprisingly nutritious. Superior in protein quality to wheat, corn, rice, oats, barley, amaranth and soy, chia also offers a disease-fighting arsenal of antioxidants, including chlorogenic acid, caffeic acid, myricetin, quercetin and flavonols. Of keenest interest at present, however, is chia's abundance of omega-3 fatty acids, which studies have shown promote a wide range of cardiovascular and mental health benefits. Chia turns out to be the highest known wholefood source of omega-3s.

Dr. Vladimir Vuksan, a pioneer of the functional foods movement in Europe and one of the developers of the revolutionary glycemic index at the University of Toronto, recently conducted the first long-term study of chia's health effects. He and his colleagues used a commercial variety of chia called Salba, developed especially to produce white, rather than the original black, seed and a more reliable omega-3 content of about 60 percent.

In their six-month study of type 2 diabetes patients, the researchers found impressive health effects from eating Salba daily. In patients who already were on diets or medication to control their disease, Salba lowered systolic blood pressure by 10 and diastolic by five mm mercury. It also reduced c-reactive protein (CRP) levels by 32 percent and lowered fibrinolytic (blood thickening) factors, which can trigger cardiovascular disease.

"These were huge discoveries rarely seen in medical literature, even with the most powerful and combined pharmacological therapies," Dr. Vuksan explains. "Ten over five is a major blood pressure reduction; there aren't many studies showing this effect."

"We asked ourselves, why is this happening?." Dr. Vuksan says. "Then we remembered one of the things from history, that Aztecs used chia seeds as a 'running food.' So we thought that maybe something [about chia] was helping the body to function better. We measured the body inflammation, the so-called c-reactive protein, which has been discovered as a major risk factor for heart disease, even more important than cholesterol, according to studies from Harvard. This was one of the rarest studies in the world, showing that CRP dropped about 32 percent in type 2 diabetics who were heavily medicated and well controlled," he continues. "The only other major studies showing a reduction in CRP have been done with statin drugs."

The researchers also looked at fibrinolytic factors. "The thickness of blood can determine heart problems," Dr. Vuksan says. "We actually found some of the major fibrinolytic factors, like factor VIII (linked to von Willebrand's disease) and fibrinogen, were significantly reduced after Salba. …

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