Chia: It may not be just for pets anymore.
The seeds behind the world's favorite hair-sprouting ceramic creatures might start turning up in an unexpected place: your cake recipe.
According to a new study, a gel made from chia seeds - yes, the same ones that lend their name to the beloved line of Chia Pets - may work as a substitute for eggs or oil to reduce the fat content of cakes.
Led by Dr. Rafael Borneo, a researcher at the Center of Excellence in Products and Processes Córdoba in Argentina, the study's authors experimented with cake recipes that substituted 25 percent, 50 percent, or 75 percent of the original recipes' eggs or oil for a gel made from chia seeds and water.
They fed each cake variety to a group of 75 young adults "who consumed cake as part of their typical diet pattern" and asked them to judge the cakes based on appearance, texture, and, of course, taste.
Taste testers gave the cakes made with a 25 percent chia gel substitution a thumbs-up: they were just as good as the original. The cakes with 50 and 75 percent substitutions? Not as good as the real thing, but not bad either.
Substituting 25 percent of a cake's oil with chia gel cut down on its calories (317 versus 335 per piece) and fat (8.7 grams versus 10.7 grams) compared to the original, Borneo and his colleagues report in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
The plant's advocates hope that studies like this one will help convince food companies and grocery shoppers to take chia seriously.
It's not surprising that chia seeds can help make a healthier cake that doesn't sacrifice taste, said Dr. Wayne Coates, an agricultural engineer who has been studying the plant for almost 20 years but was not involved with the current research.
"You can add it to anything," he told Reuters Health. "It has no flavor." And, he said, it's full of nutrients: antioxidants, fiber, protein, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Borneo cited its anti-inflammatory properties, and his study is not the first time chia has been touted for its health benefits. Long before the plant became famous for topping the pot-shaped likes of Scooby-Doo, Garfield, and the entire Chia "Proud to be an American" series, it was a staple crop in Mexico and Guatemala.
"The Aztec warriors carried chia seed on their campaigns," said Coates, who has promoted chia seeds on behalf of companies in the past. "That was their food, basically."
Michael Hirsch, the vice president of Joseph Enterprises, the company that produces Chia Pets, said that the company knew about the health benefits of chia early on, but chose to go the growing route instead of the eating route. Now that more research is supporting its health benefits, Joseph Enterprises has started promoting recipes using chia as well, he said.
Coates thinks chia isn't too far from showing up on supermarket shelves. The seeds - which cost about $5 to $6 per pound — are already sold in health food stores, and bigger companies are starting to get interested in the plant's health benefits, he said.
"It's just a fantastic food," he said.