The ’90s were dark times for flaxseeds and chia seeds. Back then, flaxseeds had been dubbed a “health food,” but most of the products made from them—flax crackers, anyone?—tasted like wood chips. And though ch-ch-ch-chia pets were at the height of their glory, we now know there are a lot better ways to use the super-healthy seeds.
Thankfully, seed literacy has come a long way. Not only have we discovered ways to make flaxseeds great again (see this Paleo Coconut Porridge), but we’re also throwing chia seeds into everything with reckless abandon. The two have a lot in common—they’re both high in fiber and packed with healthy omega-3 fatty acids—and can even be used interchangeably in vegan baking as a replacement for eggs.
But if your house was burning down and you could only save one, which would you choose? We hope it never comes to that (flax and chia for everyone!), but just in case you’re confronted with this predicament in the future, let’s break down the facts about these two superfoods.
They look like poppy seeds when they’re dry, but once exposed to moisture, chia seeds swell up into gelatinous blobs—much like tapioca. They don’t really have a taste, so you can add them into almost any recipe without mucking up the flavor.
If you want to instantly make anything more nutritious, add chia seeds. One tablespoon is a mere 130 calories and boasts 11 grams of fiber, 4 grams of protein, 9 grams of healthy fats, as well as a healthy dose of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, vitamin B, and antioxidants.
Chia seeds are an excellent source of vegan protein because they contain the nine essential amino acids—basically the building blocks of protein that you can typically only get from animal sources. (Our bodies can’t make these specific amino acids on its own.) Yet, a few servings of chia seeds regularly can provide all of those essential amino acids, whether you’re a meat-eater or not.
These tiny seeds are also packed with omega-3 fatty acids—gram for gram, they hold more than salmon. Omega-3s act as anti-inflammatory compounds in the body, and according to the University of Maryland, have been linked to reducing the risk of heart disease, cancer, and arthritis.
Best uses for chia seeds
You can use chia seeds in pretty much anything—just be prepared for them to sap a lot of moisture out of the dish. If you want them to stay crunchy, wait until the end of the cooking process to add them. Try chia in:
Add a tablespoon or two into a favorite smoothie recipe to give it a thicker, fluffier consistency. Want a smoothie with a little crunch? Stir ’em in after blending.
Ready to hear the easiest dessert recipe ever? Add 3 tablespoons chia seeds to 1 cup almond, coconut, or cashew milk, stir, and let sit for at least 10 minutes. Sprinkle the toppings of your choosing on top (we like goji berries and cacao nibs) and enjoy! Another variation we love: these banana-chocolate parfaits.
A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning found that chia seeds are just as effective at maintaining energy levels as Gatorade—and their higher nutrient content helped athletes recover more quickly. Add a tablespoon into 16 ounces of water, lemonade, or your favorite sports drink.
Making homemade granola is a super easy way to use up leftover grains, nuts, and dried fruit for a healthy breakfast. Follow your favorite granola recipe, and just before baking, add 3 tablespoons of dried chia to the mix and toss to coat.
Though it’s a tried-and-true breakfast, sometimes oatmeal just feels tired. Make it a little more exciting—and a lot more powerful—by stirring in chia seeds before cooking as usual. Instant extra protein and fiber!
No eggs in the house? As long you have some chia seeds in the pantry, you can still make those gooey chocolate chip cookies. To make one vegan “egg,” grind 1 tablespoon chia seeds in a spice or coffee grinder. Add 3 tablespoons of water to the meal and allow to sit for 5 minutes. The mixture will take on a consistency similar to a raw egg, and acts just as well as a binding agent in baked goods.
By the way, the list above doesn’t even scratch the surface of chia’s many uses. Check out nine unexpected ways to use these versatile seeds in and out of the kitchen.
Brown, golden, or ground, flaxseeds are pretty popular as far as health foods go, and easy to find at more mainstream stores these days. But flax is tricky—its high fat content means that both the seeds and oil go rancid quickly when stored improperly. Plus, the human body can’t break down the tough outer shell of the seeds, so grinding them to a meal is key for nutrient absorption. And while flaxseeds and flax oil have a nutty taste that’s pretty delightful, it can overwhelm some recipes.
From a dietary standpoint, flaxseeds are pretty similar to chia seeds. Three tablespoons have 6 grams of protein, 8 grams of fiber, and 12 grams of healthy fats and only 150 calories.
Because they’re so high in fiber and protein, flaxseeds keep you feeling full for longer and can promote weight loss when eaten regularly.
Even better, the soluble fiber inside really helps reduce cholesterol levels, because it trap fats and cholesterol in the digestive system so that the body can’t absorb and use them. That means both bad cholesterol and fat is eliminated along with the fiber.
But the macronutrient profile isn’t the most impressive aspect of flaxseeds. These little guys really shine when you notice how many vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants are packed inside.
Take lignans, for example. Flaxseeds are the number one source of these polyphenols, which have been linked to preventing hormone-associated cancers, osteoporosis, and cardiovascular disease. Studies also suggest that a diet high in lignans can ease hormonal symptoms of menopause. Polyphenols support gut health, too, because they feed the growth of beneficial probiotic bacteria.
Gut health and cancer-fighting aren’t the only things they’re good for—flaxseeds are chock-full of other beneficial substances including:
- Zinc, selenium, and magnesium support healthy skin and help wounds heal. In particular, zinc is excellent for treating acne because of its antibacterial effects.
- Vitamin B reduces skin flakiness and dryness, and is excellent for improving energy levels and boosting the immune system.
- Iron and copper work together to form healthy red blood cells and blood vessels. Both are necessary for bone health.
Remember that our bodies can’t metabolize the outer skin of flax, so eaten whole, the seeds simply act as roughage to clear out the intestines. To really absorb the nutrients inside, you need to grind flaxseeds into meal.
Best uses for flaxseeds
Like chia, there are seemingly endless ways to use flaxseeds, including:
Healthy salad topper
Sprinkle a tablespoon of whole flaxseeds over salad for a little extra crunch and fiber.
Ground flaxseeds seamlessly mix into whole wheat batter and can make any dish a little bit more healthy. Try our favorite whole wheat waffle recipe for some inspiration!
As ground flaxseeds absorb water, they’ll naturally thicken anything you add them to. Thicken up oats or porridge with a tablespoon for an even heartier breakfast.
Just like chia eggs, flax eggs are a worthy stand-in when you’re out of the real thing (or want to make a vegan version of your favorite cookies, cakes, and other baked goods). Mix 1 tablespoon ground flaxseed into 3 tablespoons water and allow to sit for up to five minutes—that’s one “egg.” Flax eggs are best in recipes that require more nuttiness, because they do have more of flavor than chia eggs.
Which is better?
Chia seeds and flaxseeds are nearly interchangeable when it comes to nutrition, but both are worthy of a spot in your pantry. Chia seeds can be effortlessly added into nearly anything, thanks to their almost nonexistent taste, but work especially well in smoothies, juices, and oatmeal. Flaxseeds have a more discernable nutty flavor, come whole or ground, and work best in baked goods because of their fibrous nature.
We recommend experimenting with both—some people love the taste of flax, others prefer the versatility of chia seeds. And because they’re both so good for you, it all comes down to personal preference!
Photo credit: Alicia Cho