Chia Seeds, Flaxseeds, Hemp Seeds – Which One Is Healthier and More Sustainable?

Flaxseeds are grown in the Okanogan, BC
Mother and Daughter near the Okanogan, where Flaxseeds are now grown.

Superfoods are big money. With their promises of everlasting youth and renewed vitality, consumers will happily spend the big bucks without further question. Some really are super, some are flops (ie. noni juice). We have always known that seeds hold a high nutritional value, but we’ve moved past the common sunflower, pumpkin and sesame seed and are now looking for something new and edgy. 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 their environmental standpoint. Chia Seeds, Flaxseeds, Hemp Seeds – which one better for you?

Prince Rupert, BC, Canada
Prince Rupert, BC, Canada

Let’s Talk Hemp Seeds

All the rage in Canada, not available in Australia*. What a shame. Hemp seeds 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.

*Foods derived from hemp are not permitted in Australia or New Zealand, although New Zealand does permit hemp oil products.

Nutritional Benefits of Hemp Seeds

Hemp seeds are a great source of high quality protein providing ~ 7g per 2 tbsp. and all essential amino acids making it one of the few plant-based complete proteins. Hemp seeds also provide a balance of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids at a ratio of 3:1 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. The omega-6 is Gamma Linolenic Acid (GLA) which may have a role in managing inflammatory conditions. Hemp seeds also provide an impressive array of phytochemicals, and important minerals including magnesium and zinc. Hemp seeds 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.

The Sustainability of Hemp Seeds

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 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 seeds see Huffington Post: Why Hemp, The Sustainable Wonder Crop, Is Sweeping The Nation or my post on hemp milk.

Who Should Be Eating Hemp Seeds

If you are looking for a good source of protein to add to your morning smoothies, then hemp seeds are for you. Try adding 3 tbsp. 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.

Pacaya Volcano, Guatemala
Pacaya Volcano, Guatemala

Let’s Talk Chia Seeds

Thank you Kelly Slater for helping to propel this tiny seed to stardom. 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). The 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 or snack balls like my favourite Raw Date Fudge Balls.

Nutritional Benefits of Chia Seeds

Chia seeds are second only to flaxseeds in omega-3 content with 2.6 grams per 1 tbsp. (compared to 1 tbsp. of whole flaxseed at 3.2 grams). Like all seeds they are a good source of vitamins, trace minerals, essential fatty acids, plant protein and phytochemicals. A 2 tbsp serve of chia seeds also offers 3.3mg of iron and 142mg of calcium. Chia seeds are also an excellent source of fibre comprised of about 8g per 2 tbsp. 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. Chia seeds can also be sprouted which may help to increase the bioavailability of some nutrients; see Sprouted Summer Salad Recipe: The How To and Health Benefits of Sprouting Food for more information on sprouting.

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 into 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.

Healthy Toasted Muesli and Nuts, Dates and Seeds
My Favourite Recipe for Toasted Muesli with Dried Fruit and Sunflower seeds, Flaxseeds and Pepitas!

Let’s Talk Flaxseeds

Flax was traditionally used as an ingredient in paints, fiber and cattle feed. It’s 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 as pictured above.

Nutritional Benefits of Flaxseeds

Of all the seeds, flaxseeds appear to offer the most potential for human health. They have the best omega 6:omega-3 ratio of about 1:4 which goes a long way towards helping correct an imbalance of essential fatty acids. The high amount of omega-3 has also been shown to reduce triglyceride levels, blood pressure and the tendency to form blood clots. 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 also appear to improve glycemic control in people with diabetes. They are also rich in phytonutrients and are one of the richest sources of boron. Grounding your flaxseeds ensures increases the absorption of nutrients.

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.

Breakfast Chia Seed Pudding with Wild Rice, Maple Syrup and Almonds
A Yummy Breakfast Chia Seed Pudding Recipe

In A Nut Shell – Which One Is Best For You

  • Flaxseeds are the highest in omega-3 fatty acids, followed by chia seeds. They both contain more than hemp seeds,
  • Hemp seeds have the highest amount of protein with 2 tbsp. offering 7g. It is also a complete protein,
  • Flaxseeds are the most cost effective,
  • Chia seeds are a great source of calcium, offering 142mg per 2 tbsp serve (RDI ~1000mg/day),
  • Flaxseeds contain lignans which may help to reduce the growth of human cancer cells,
  • Hemp seeds 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 our your diet ensures access to all the essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals.

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