Superfoods are big money. Promises of everlasting youth and renewed vitality, consumers happily spend the big bucks without further question. Some really are super, some are flops. Chia seeds, flaxseeds and hemp seeds have all made their mainstream supermarket debut over the last few years and as super as they all are, each of them has individual health properties that are as unique as their consumers are. Some are better suited to certain individuals, and some consumers like to factor in the environmental standpoint. Chia vs Flax vs Hemp – which one better for you?
Let’s Talk Hemp Hearts
Hemp hearts are derived from industrial hemp which is a strain of the cannabis plant. Don’t get too excited, they have been bred to contain low levels (0.3%) of THC which is the prohibited and active component of marijuana. The coming and goings (and then comings) of hemp has an interesting story in Canadian history. See here for more details on hemps journey to our supermarket shelves.
Nutritional Benefits of Hemp Hearts
Hemp Hearts and Protein
Hemp hearts are a great source of high-quality protein providing ~ 7 grams of protein per 2 tablespoons. Hemp also contains all essential amino acids making it one of the few plant-based complete proteins.
Hemp Hearts and Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Hemp hearts also provide a balance of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids at a ratio of 1:3 which if you remember from my post How To Get Your Omega-3s For The Vegetarians it is important to ensure a good balance of these two for maximum utilization of omega-3s. One tablespoon of hemp hearts contains 0.2 grams of omega-3 fatty acid.
Hemp Hearts and Omega-6 Fatty Acids
The omega-6 is Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA) which may have a role in managing inflammatory conditions. GLA is found in a limited variety of foods including evening primrose seed oil, black currant seed oil, borage seed oil and of course hemp. Hemp’s fatty acid profile contains ~2-5% of this helpful fatty acid (1).
Hemp Hearts and Other Nutrients
Hemp hearts also provide an impressive array of phytochemicals and important minerals including magnesium and zinc. Hemp hearts lack any clinical research into their numerous health claims, but as they have a similar nutritional composition to other nuts and seeds we can assume they provide similar health benefits.
Summary of Nutritional Benefits of Hemp Hearts
- Contains high-quality protein with all essential amino acids
- Provides 7 grams of protein per 2 tablespoon serving
- An omega-3 to omega-6 ration of 1:3
- Contains omega-6 fatty acid gamma-linolenic acid (GLA)
- Contains phytochemicals, magnesium and zinc
The Sustainability of Hemp Hearts
Hemp Hearts and The Environment
Hemp can be grown in a variety of climates and soil types and we are lucky to have it grown right here in Canada. As it grows quickly and like a “weed”, this decreases the need for most pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides and also means hemp requires less water compared to most other crops.
Hemp Hearts and Versatility
Hemp can also replace cotton in clothing, trees for paper making and can be used as a biofuel. More and more products are being made from hemp including carpet, cosmetics, diapers, nets, and shoes. What might be most exciting is that hemp may one day be replacing plastic. For more information on the sustainability of hemp hearts see Huffington Post: Why Hemp, The Sustainable Wonder Crop, Is Sweeping The Nation or my post on Hemp Milk Recipe.
Who Should Be Eating Hemp Hearts
If you are looking for a good source of protein to add to your morning smoothies, then hemp hearts are for you. Try adding 3 tablespoons of hemp hearts which can provide almost as much protein as two eggs. You may also want to support this super “green” crop from an environmental perspective. Hemp is also great for its versatility – try adding it to yogurt, oatmeal, sandwiches, salads, lasagna, stir-fries, baked goods, ice cream, and cereals.
Let’s Talk Chia Seeds
Chia has a long history of human consumption, originally used by natives of Mexico and Guatemala. It is thought that medicinal use may have been one of chia’s primary roles. For food, in pre-Columbian Mexico, chia seeds were ground into flour and used to make tortillas, tamales and a variety of different Aztec beverages. The beverages were called chianatoles – chia drinks are still consumed today and can be referred to as chia fresco or agua de chia (chia mixed with lemon, sugar or fruit juice).
They are also great used as a base for a breakfast pudding as in this Simple Breakfast Chia Seed Pudding Recipe with Wild Rice, Maple Syrup and Almonds Recipe, added to smoothies, energy balls or these Gluten-Free Seed Crackers.
Nutritional Benefits of Chia Seeds
Chia Seeds and Omega-3 Fatty Acid
Chia seeds are second only to flaxseeds in omega-3 content. Chia seeds contain 1.9 grams per 1 tablespoon of chia, compared to 2.4 grams of omega-3 in 1 tablespoon of whole flaxseed.
Chia Seeds and Vitamins and Minerals
A 2 tablespoon serving of chia seeds also offers 3.3 milligrams of iron and 142 milligrams of calcium. Like all seeds, they are a good source of vitamins, trace minerals, essential fatty acids, plant protein and phytochemicals.
Chia Seeds and Fibre
Chia seeds are also an excellent source of fibre comprised of about 8 grams per 2 tablespoons of chia. Recent research has suggested that chia seeds are beneficial in lowering systolic blood pressure and markers of platelet aggregation. They have also been shown to improve glycemic control and reduce cardiovascular risks factors in humans, likely related to their high fibre content.
Summary of Nutritional Benefits of Chia Seeds
- Chia seeds are second only to flaxseeds in omega-3 content, with 1.9 grams per 1 tablespoon of chia
- Chia seeds are high in calcium; 2 tablespoons of chia contains 142 milligrams of calcium
- Chia seeds are a good source of iron; 2 tablespoons of chia contains 3.3 milligrams of iron
- Chia seeds are high in soluble fibre which is helpful in managing blood sugar levels
The Sustainability of Chia Seeds
Chia seeds are grown in Australia, Mexico and several countries of Central and South America. Some companies that grow chia in its native habitat claim that their chia is grown traditionally and sustainably without the use of pesticides. Food miles can be considered when comparing this non-native seed to more local options.
Who Should Be Eating Chia Seeds
Most people would benefit from the addition of chia seeds to their diet. With their high vitamin and mineral content and numerous health claims backed up by clinical research, it would be difficult to think of a reason to not be eating chia. Chia can be essential on a dairy-free diet with its high concentration of calcium. The main downside to chia is the price; if budget is a factor you could probably be finding similar health benefits from an alternative seed. If you live in Canada, you might want to consider food miles as chia seeds are not grown locally.
Let’s Talk Flaxseeds
Flax was traditionally used as an ingredient in paints, fiber and cattle feed. The earliest evidence of human use was in the Republic of Georgia where it was used in textiles dated back 30.000 years ago. One of its earliest evidence of culinary use was in ancient Greece where it was highly prized for its health benefits. Flaxseeds can be eaten whole or ground up. They make a great addition to smoothies and sweets. I like mine in Healthy Toasted Muesli with Nuts, Dates and Seeds or these Gluten-Free Seed Crackers.
Nutritional Benefits of Flaxseeds
Flaxseeds and Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Of all the seeds, flaxseeds appear to offer the most potential for human health. They have the best omega 3 to omega-6 ratio of about 4:1 of all the seeds, which goes a long way towards helping correct an imbalance of essential fatty acids. One tablespoon of ground flax contains 2.4 grams of omega-3 fatty acid.
The high amount of omega-3 has also been shown to reduce triglyceride levels, blood pressure and the tendency to form blood clots. See How To Get Your Omega-3s For The Vegetarians for more information on the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.
Flaxseeds and Cancer
Research also suggests that flaxseeds are also the richest known source of the potent anticarcinogen lignans, with around 75-800 times the levels of most other plant foods. Lignans have an antiestrogenic effect, possibly reducing the risk of hormone-related cancers.
Flaxseeds and Blood Sugar Management
Flaxseeds also appear to improve glycemic control in people with diabetes. This is likely due to the high fibre content, much of which is soluble fibre. They are also rich in phytonutrients and are one of the richest sources of boron. Grounding your flaxseeds ensures increases the absorption of nutrients.
Summary of Nutritional Benefits of Flaxseeds
- Flaxseeds are the highest in omega-3 of all the seeds
- Flaxseeds have an omega-3 to omega-6 ration of 4:1
- One tablespoon of ground flax contains 2.4 grams of omega-3 fatty acid
- Flaxseeds are one of the richest sources of dietary lignans which have been linked to reducing risk of hormone-related cancer
- Flaxseeds are a good source of soluble fibre and have a role in blood sugar management
The Sustainability of Flaxseeds
Flaxseeds can be grown locally; most Canadian flaxseeds being grown in the prairies, and organic varieties in the Okanagan Valley of B.C. Be careful of a genetically modified flax now being marketed as “a new and improved version of flaxseed oil” under the trade name “Linola oil.” In fact, the only improvement is in the length of time the oil will last on the store shelf. It has also been shown to have an increase to about 70% omega-6 fatty acids and a lesser amount of omega-3 fatty acids (down to 2% from 57%) for a ratio of 35:1 – what’s the point?
Who Should Be Eating Flaxseeds
Flaxseeds are the most cost-effective of these 3 seeds and can be a quick and easy addition to morning smoothies or meal time salads. Flaxseeds are best for those that can eat them regularly as they are prone to going rancid quite quickly. Store yours in the fridge and ensure you are buying from a reputable source to ensure you are not eating rancid flax! I suggest purchasing whole flaxseeds and grinding them yourself to ensure the nutrients are intact. Grinding also increased the availability of the nutrients in the seed.
In A Nut Shell – Which One Is Best For You Chia vs Flax vs Hemp
- Flaxseeds are the highest in omega-3 fatty acids, followed by chia seeds. They both contain more than hemp hearts,
- Hemp hearts have the highest amount of protein with 2 tablespoons offering 7 grams. It is also a complete protein,
- Flaxseeds are the most cost-effective,
- Chia seeds are a great source of calcium, offering 142 milligrams per 2 tablespoons serve (Recommended Dietary Intake is ~1000mg per day),
- Flaxseeds contain lignans which may help to reduce the growth of human cancer cells,
- Hemp hearts get a gold star for sustainability,
- Flaxseeds go rancid quickly, make sure you store them in your fridge and purchase from a reputable source,
- All seeds offer similar and their own unique health benefits. Including a wide variety of different seeds to our your diet ensures access to all the essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals.
- Vogl CR, Molleken H, Lissek-Wolf G, Surbock A, Kobert J. Hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) as a resource for green cosmetics: yield of seed and fatty acid compositions of 20 varieties under the growing conditions of organic farming in Austria. J Industrial Hemp. 2004;9:51-68.
Rachel Dickens, The Conscious Dietitian, is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator. She graduated with her Masters in Nutrition and Dietetics in 2010 from Griffith University. She strives to provide evidence-based nutrition information with a focus on plant-based nutrition, and share some of her favourite seasonal recipes and sustainable eating tips.