Seeds of life: chia, flax, hemp and pumpkin
Seeds are a crucial food source for birds, squirrels, livestock and other animals, especially during winter. For humans, edible seeds provide a delicious, nutrient-packed punch to meals and snacks, and are the source of most of our cooking oils, as well as some spices and beverages.

Seeds are quite high in calories because of their natural oils but don't let that dissuade you from enjoying them. Their nutritional value is worth every calorie. A few interesting edible seeds that top the nutrient charts are chia, flax, hemp and pumpkin seeds.

Chia Seeds

While most of us remember the "Ch-ch-ch-chia Pet" as an '80s gimmick, the ancient plant is actually regarded as a superfood, with many clinically proven health benefits.

Chia, Salvia hispanica, a plant belonging to the mint family, was so highly recognized by the Aztecs that it was often used as currency. The powerful seeds, referred to as "running food," sustained Aztec runners, hunters, traders and warriors on long expeditions, often as their only source of nourishment.

Today, experts suggest that chia is one of the most nutritionally complete foods found in nature. In addition to being an excellent fiber source (mostly insoluble, which creates bulk for stool), chia is a rich plant-based source of Omega-3 fatty acids, consists of about 20 percent protein, and contains high levels of antioxidants, calcium, magnesium and iron.

Research has shown that chia has enormous potential to prevent and treat cardiovascular disease and Type 2 Diabetes. It can lower blood sugar (glucose) after a meal, reduce inflammation (C-Reactive Protein) and blood pressure, and is a natural blood thinner.

Since chia can absorb several times its weight in water, it helps the body maintain hydration, an important advantage to athletes and to those living in hot climates.

Gluten-free chia seed can be added -- whole or ground -- to a wide range of foods, including cereals, breads and bakery products, yogurt, desserts, pasta, and even soups and mayonnaise.

Flax Seeds

Flax has been cultivated for centuries and has been celebrated for its usefulness all over the world. Hippocrates wrote about using flax for the relief of abdominal pains, and the French Emperor Charlemagne favored flax seed so much that he passed laws requiring its consumption!

The main health benefits of flax seed are due to its rich content of Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA), dietary fiber, and lignans.

The essential fatty acid ALA is a powerful anti-inflammatory, decreasing the production of agents that promote inflammation and lowering blood levels of C-Reactive Protein (CRP), a biomarker of inflammation. Through the actions of the ALA and lignans, flax has been shown to block tumor growth in animals and may help reduce cancer risk in humans.

Lignans are phytoestrogens, plant compounds that have estrogen-like effects and antioxidant properties. Phytoestrogens help to stabilize hormonal levels, reducing the symptoms of PMS and menopause, and potentially reducing the risk of developing breast and prostate cancer.

The fiber in flax seed promotes healthy bowel function. One tablespoon of whole flax seed contains as much fiber as half a cup of cooked oat bran. Flax's soluble fibers can lower blood cholesterol levels, helping reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Ground flax seed provides more nutritional benefits than does the whole seed. Grind the seeds at home using a coffee grinder or blender, and add them to cereals, baked goods, smoothies, and yogurt.

Store dry, whole flax seed in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a year. Ground flax seed should be refrigerated, also in an airtight container. Properly stored, it will keep for up to three months.

Hemp Seeds

Hemp has been an important resource and source of nutrition for thousands of years. While Cannabis sativa L. and other non-drug varieties of Cannabis, commonly known as hemp, have not been cultivated for use much in recent years, interest in the versatile plant has been restored worldwide.