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Chia: A Miracle Food in the Aztec Empire and the Modern World

Health food stores are flooded with seeds, seasonings and supplements that promise some amazing benefits, but there is one incredible seed that has remained largely under the radar in modern times, despite centuries of cultivation. That seed, of course, is chia. Chia boasts numerous health benefits, and has been promoted by health experts like Dr. Andrew Weil and Dr. Mehmet Oz, but what exactly is chia and where does it come from? This history of this miracle food is just as remarkable as its benefits.

By most estimations, chia consumption is believed to date back to approximately 3,500 B.C. The chia seed comes from the desert plant Salvia hispanica, which belongs to the mint family. The plant grows most abundantly in southern Mexico, and was an everyday part of the Aztec and Mayan diets more than 5,000 years ago. Evidence suggests that between 1,500 and 900 B.C., chia was even an important cash crop in the Aztec empire.

During their golden age, chia seeds were used and consumed in a myriad of different ways. They could be enjoyed by themselves, mixed with other grains, mixed with water to create beverages, ground into flour, incorporated into various medicines, and pressed into a liquid base for face and body paints. Chia seeds were even traded as currency and presented to the gods during important religious ceremonies.

The ancient Aztecs actually consumed four essential grains on a daily basis: maize (corn), beans, amaranth, and of course, chia. Incidentally, the combination of these four grains satisfies the current Food and Agriculture Organization-World Health Organization (FAO-WHO) guidelines for healthy eating. Clearly the Aztecs were ahead of their time.

These seeds were not only consumed for everyday sustenance. They were even essential to Aztec warriors, who could sustain themselves for 24 hours on a single tablespoon. Even the Aztecs' enemies saw how vital and important these seeds were to the culture, health and religion of early Mexico, and the Spanish sought to do something about it.

When the Spanish conquistadors invaded Latin America, they quickly outlawed the cultivation of chia. Hernando Cortez, who led the invasion, sought to subjugate the Aztecs, and believed that the suppression of chia would serve as a huge blow to the Mesoamericans. The Aztecs, after all, believed that chia had religious significance, supplying them with almost supernatural power. The Spaniards succeeded in eliminating chia from daily life, and it soon became an obscure and almost forgotten crop.

In recent years, chia has made an incredible comeback, as many scientists have come to the conclusion that the diet of these early Americans was far superior to the typical American diet today. Chia has become popular not only in the United States for its nutrients, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, but it has made an impressive comeback in Mexico as well. It remains a traditional food of the Tarahumara and Chumash peoples of Chiuahua.

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