Flax seed step aside, there’s a new plant source of omega-3s

Feb 16, 2009 at 11:06 a.m. ET

What is naturally higher in omega 3s than flax or salmon, has more antioxidants than blueberries, packs more iron than spinach and contains more calcium than milk? An ancient gluten-free grain from South America called Salvia hispanica L or Salba. Available in whole grain and ground form as well as a number of tasty products, Salba is a delicious way to incorporate more health into your diet. Read on to learn more about the health benefits of this super grain and ways to cook with it.

Ground Salba

The discovery of a "new" whole grain

According to Rally Ralston, managing partner of Salba Smart Natural Products, Salba ( a name derived from a combination of the plant's botanical name Salvia hispanica L and alba, the Latin word for white) is the culmination of almost 15 years of cutting edge and traditional plant breeding by one family in South America solely using Salvia hispanica L.

Ralston says there is evidence that Salvia hispanica L was first used as food as early as 3500 BC, and served as a cash crop in central Mexico between 1500 and 900 BC, but was only recently rediscovered in the 1990's. "The first experimental plots for Salba were started in 1991 in Argentina by Adolfo and Alfredo Mealla," he explains. "By 1994 they had successfully introduced Salba in Colombia and in 1997 further experimental crops were planted in Bolivia and Peru. Today, Salba is grown under intensely controlled conditions in Peru due to its ideal climate and pristine environment."

Heart health benefits of Salba

"Salba is the richest known source of omega-3 fatty acids in nature," says Ralston. In addition, Salba also has an excellent ratio of omega-3's, omega-6s, and omega-9s (Click for more information on the optimal omega ratio).

Why are omega-3s so important? Heart health is one reason. "Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to regulate gene transcription and expression to reduce inflammatory factors and affect lipid (fat) metabolism," explains Ralston. "They have also been shown to modify several risk factors for coronary heart disease, including a reduction of serum triglycerides and blood pressure." Plus, Salba's anti-inflammatory properties may reduce levels of C-reactive protein, a factor in developing heart disease.

Ralston adds, "Furthermore, fatty acids are required for maintaining the structure of cell membranes and permeability of the skin. They are also precursors of eicosanoids, such as prostaglandins and thromboxanes, and are essential components in cholesterol transport and metabolism."

Salba can help control blood sugar

Salba isn't just good for the heart, research indicates that this super grain, which has more fiber than All-Bran, is also beneficial for people with diabetes. A study published in November 2007 in the medical journal Diabetes Care reports that long-term supplementation of Salba helps control blood sugar and reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease factors common in Type 2 diabetes.

Salba can contribute to a healthy pregnancy

Salba may help reduce the risk of preenclampsia, a potentially fatal disorder characterized by high blood pressure that occurs during pregnancy. Ralston says, "In a recent study, women with the lowest levels of omega-3 fatty acids were seven times more likely to have had their pregnancies complicated by preeclampsia compared with those women with the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids." He adds that an increase in the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids (naturally present in Salba) was associated with a reduction in the risk of preeclampsia.

Salba can keep you sharp

Among other things, Ralston promotes Salba as an easy way to boost your brain health. He says, "Omega-3 deficiencies are linked to decreased memory and mental abilities, poor vision, and learning disorders."

Salba may fight cancer

Boasting a higher ORAC (a measure of antioxidants in food) than blueberries or pomegranates, salba can be a healthy addition to your cancer-fighting intake of antioxidants. Make a fruit smoothie with Salba and you've got one delicious cancer-combatting shake.

Salba for your bones

Did you know that 99 percent of the calcium in your body is found in your bones and teeth? Unsurprising then that a balanced diet that includes adequate calcium is associated with good bone health. Salba contains six times more calcium than a glass of whole milk. If you're lactose intolerant, Salba is a natural way for you to consume a sufficient amount of the bone-buidling mineral.

Tips to incorporate salba into your daily diet

Salba comes in whole and ground forms (and its nutrients are bioavailable in whole form, unlike flax seed, which needs to be ground for optimal absorption in the body) and, with its neutral flavor, can be added to any food or drink.

Ralston recommends sprinkling Salba on cereal or salad or in smoothies as well as using it as an egg substitute in baking. You can mix it into pancake or waffle batter and sandwich spreads or use it in soups or gravies as a thickener. You can also use ground Salba to replace one-sixth of the flour in most baked recipes.

And for healthy snacking, Salba Smart makes omega-3-rich tortillas and tortilla chips, salsa, and pretzels. You can find these and other Salba products at Whole Foods, Wild Oats and other health food stores.

For Salba recipes and cooking tips to use Salba in your everyday cooking, visit SalbaSmart.com.

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