Chia Seeds vs. Flaxseeds: What’s the Difference?
These seeds are both a great source of fibre. Here's what you need to know about the nutritional differences of chia seeds vs. flaxseeds.
Feel like you’re seeing chia seed and flaxseed recipes everywhere recently? That’s because these little seeds have become wildly popular. According to Mordor Intelligence, a marketing research firm, chia seed sales have increased 5.8 percent from 2018, with sales of more than $88 million forecast by 2024. Flaxseeds, meanwhile, are forecast for a whopping 11.8 percent growth over the same period.
It can be easy to confuse the two, but not all seeds are created alike. “The main difference is taste,” says Seamus Mullen, chef at the Institute of Culinary Education. “Chia is neutral in flavour and flax has a slightly nutty flavour.” As a result, chia is easier to fold into recipes undetected, while flax stands out a bit more.
One key similarity between chia seeds and flaxseeds is that “both are high in fibre, protein, and healthy fats,” Mullen says, adding, “flax has slightly higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids while chia has higher levels of minerals and fibre.”
Here’s what you need to know about the differences between chia seeds and flaxseeds.
Where do chia seeds and flaxseeds come from?
Though chia seeds and flaxseeds might initially seem interchangeable, they have very different origins: chia is from Mexico and Guatemala, while flax is originally from the Middle East, explains Mullen.
A major food crop in Mexico and Guatemala as early as 3500 BC, chia seeds are derived from the plant Salvia hispanica L. and were offered up to Aztec gods in religious ceremonies.
Meanwhile, flaxseeds come from the plant Linum usitatissimum. According to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, flax is one of the oldest cultivated crops and is native to the Middle East’s Fertile Crescent, initially grown primarily for use in linens.
Health benefits of flaxseeds and chia seeds
While it’s tempting to think of both chia seeds and flaxseeds as a magic bullet, their health properties only go so far.
“Most research indicates that it’s not chia seeds or flaxseeds alone that contribute to exact disease prevention, but their (role in) a plant-based diet when incorporated into a healthy lifestyle,” says Chef Ming Tsai, restaurateur, cookbook author, and recipient of the James Beard Award. “Anything, when eaten as part of a plant-balanced diet, can help prevent chronic diseases.”
“Flaxseeds are dense in rich nutrients,” says Mary Gollan, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist for Preg Appetit. “They are a wonderful source of omega-3 fats, fibre, and protein.” Gollan adds that studies have shown that flaxseeds may lower blood pressure and improve cholesterol.
“Flaxseeds are one of the most nutritionally dense plant-based foods containing omega 3 fatty acids,” says Tsai. One ounce of flaxseeds contains 6000 mg of inflammation-preventing omega-3 fatty acids. By comparison, six ounces of salmon contain about 4900 mg. “Flaxseeds are also a good source of insoluble fibre,” says Tsai. “They don’t dissolve in water so they stay in the digestive tract after meals, therefore promoting regularity.”
Although flaxseeds are healthy, they can be high in calories: Two tablespoons of whole flaxseeds contains 110 calories. Which is why Gollan advises eating them wisely. “Treat flaxseeds like you would nuts,” she says. “Eat them in moderation—one to three tablespoons per day—but include them regularly in your diet since they are so full of nutrients.”
By contrast, two tablespoons of chia seeds have about 140 calories, nearly six grams of protein, about eight grams of fat (including omega-3s), and 11 grams of mostly soluble fibre. Plus they’re full of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
The healthy fat content and high fibre in chia seeds might help maintain healthy cholesterol levels and slow blood sugar spikes, says Susan Bowerman, RD, a registered dietitian in Los Angeles. “They’re also a decent source of calcium, a nutrient many people don’t get much of.”
Battling extra inches? Chia seeds might also help with weight loss. Because they swell, adding bulk to dishes, they help you feel fuller and more satisfied, says Bowerman. The fibre content in chia seeds also “supports proper digestion, elimination, and a healthy gut,” adds Akua Woolbright, national nutrition director for Whole Cities Foundation, the nonprofit arm of Whole Foods.
And finally, chia seeds may help with chronic inflammation. Consuming about four tablespoons of chia seeds every day for 12 weeks led to a reduced risk for cardiovascular disease in people with type 2 diabetes, according to a small study of 30 people published in Diabetes Care. People with type 2 who ate wheat bran didn’t reap the same benefits.
(Related: Should You Try The Anti-Inflammation Diet?)
Flaxseeds, chia seeds, and fibre
Flax is extremely high in fibre. If eaten in large amounts, it could lead to digestive distress, like bloating, gas, abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea, stomachache, and nausea, warns Lianna Nielsen, a New York-based integrative nutrition health coach. “Large amounts of flax could also cause intestinal blockage if consumed without enough water.”
Chia seeds are also fibre-rich. “Chia seeds provide an excellent source of insoluble fibre, which is thought to help lower LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, slow digestion and help prevent blood sugar spikes,” says Tsai. “Nutritionally, chia seeds contain slightly more fibre than flaxseeds with about 11 grams per one-ounce serving compared to eight grams.”
What chia seeds and flaxseeds taste like
Chia seeds are mostly neutral in flavour, which explains their popularity as toppings and in baked goods calling for extra protein or an antioxidant boost. “Chia seeds are incredibly mild,” says Jenna Gorham, RD, a registered dietitian and licensed nutritionist in Montana. “You’ll hardly notice their taste, but depending on how you use them, you may notice the small seeds or gel-like texture.”
Flaxseeds, on the other hand, impart a slightly nutty taste into dishes. “When eaten whole, you may not detect much flavour at all,” says Jennifer Bravo, recipe developer, intuitive eating coach, and food photographer. “It should not taste bitter or metallic. If it does, it’s gone rancid.”
How to eat flaxseeds and chia seeds
Wondering how to add these super seeds to your recipes? Because flaxseeds have such a distinctive flavour, they’re great as an addition on top of your meal. “The easiest way to eat flaxseeds is as a crunchy topping to your shakes, cereal, yogurt, or side of sautéed veggies,” says Gollan.
“Flaxseeds are best consumed ground because they are hard to consume whole,” Tsai says. In fact, if you don’t grind your flaxseeds (you can buy them ground or put them in a coffee grinder), they can pass through you mostly undigested—and you won’t get all the nutritional benefits.
When ground, flaxseed can ‘be tossed into smoothies or mixed in with nut or seed butters and dressings,” Tsai says. By contrast, chia seeds are easy to eat whole and work well as toppings.
As far as the question of whether chia seeds and flaxseeds should be raw or soaked, it depends on whether they’re ground or whole. “Chia seeds can definitely be enjoyed raw, however it’s important to note that, after health benefits, they are most widely used because of their gelatinous texture when soaked,” says Bravo. “It’s best to soak raw chia seeds before consumption to avoid any disruptions in digestion,” Bravo says. Flax turns similarly gelatinous when wet.
Both chia seeds and flaxseeds work well when baked into foods. Bowerman likes using chia seeds to thicken pudding and oats, and to up the fibre content in baked goods. Hoping to make crackers? You’ll want to reach for flaxseeds over chia seeds. “Flax is a little more versatile in baking and making crackers,” Mullen says.
Best dishes for chia seeds and flaxseeds
Chia seeds are especially popular in pudding, where they can help support gut health while tasting delicious. And because of their mild flavour, they can be easily added to a variety of recipes: everything from breakfast to baked desserts.
Flaxseeds, on the other hand, are good for dishes in need of extra flavour or texture. “Flaxseeds really shine whole as a crunchy addition to anything,” says Gollan. “Great in granola, oatmeal, yogurt, or even savory dishes like topping them on roasted butternut squash!”
(Related: Super Healthy Seeds You Should Eat Daily)
Flaxseeds and chia seeds as an egg replacement
Looking for a vegan baking alternative to eggs? Both flaxseeds and chia seeds can easily be substituted, instead. “Grind them up and they become a great addition to any baked good, especially as an egg replacement,” says Gollan. “Simply mix one tablespoon of ground flaxseed with three tablespoons cold water. In 10 minutes you’ll have a gelatinous mixture that can be used in any baked good as an egg replacement.” The replacement works for chia seeds, too.
Important to note: The replacement properties of chia seeds and flaxseeds only go so far. “Even though ground flaxseeds make for a great egg replacement in baked goods, don’t eat or cook ground seeds expecting them to taste like egg or act like egg in an omelet,” says Gollan. “They only work their egg-like magic in baked goods.”
Flaxseeds and chia seeds both deliver nutrients, which can help improve overall health. They’re also high in fibre. A key difference between these two is their taste profile. They’re easy additions to popular dishes from cereals to shakes.