OK. “Great” may be an overstatement but if you have frequent online equine presence you have probably heard of Chia seeds as the next latest and greatest equine supplement.
Chia seeds are used to grow “hair” on the popular Chia pets heavily promoted at Christmas. More recently, Chia is being pushed as a good source of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet.
Chia on the left, flax on the right.
The horse’s natural diet, grass, has an omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid ratio of around 4:1. The same is true for browse foods the horse might eat, like leaves and buds. When grass is cut, dried and baled as hay, the fragile omega-3 fatty acids are lost. Other common diet elements like grains, brans and vegetable oils, are very high in omega-6 fatty acids, all leading to a deficiency of omega-3.
Flax seeds, and flax seed oil, with an omega-3 to omega-6 ratio of 4:1 have been the traditional fatty acid supplement for horses. The omega-3 linolenic acid and omega-6 linoleic acid cannot be manufactured in the body and have to come from the diet. Chia has a similar to somewhat lower ratio of 3:6, depending on where you are reading, and is also a reasonable source of omega-3 but there are claims by some it is superior.
A claim is made that flax has to be ground so will be less fresh than chia which does not have to be ground. However, flax is ground because of fears (which may be unfounded) that the small seeds will not be chewed well. Since chia seeds are both smaller and harder, it makes no sense to claim they don’t need to be ground.
It is said flax seed can cause cyanide poisoning because it contains cyanogenic glycosides. Cyanogenic glycosides are common in plants with over 2500 species containing them. Some frequently consumed human foods like lima beans and almonds contain higher levels than flax seed. Green flax seeds have higher levels and should be avoided but there has never been a report of cyanide toxicity from flax in any species.
Chia is claimed to have a higher protein level than flax seeds but in reality they are virtually identical. The protein in both types of seeds is very high quality and contains all the essential amino acids.
Estrogenic lignans in flax seed are said to be a negative. It’s true the lignans can bind to estrogen receptors but they do not have any estrogen-like effects. In fact, they can protect against high levels of estrogen by shielding the receptors.
There’s nothing wrong with feeding chia seeds, but it’s not true that it is superior. Since chia costs more, I’d stick with flax.
Eleanor Kellon, VMD