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(SOUNDBITE OF CHIA PET TV COMMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Ch-ch-ch-chia.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Chia Pets: the pottery that grows.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: They're fun.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

Oh, Chia Pets. Those terracotta figures that grow hair-like sprouts may actually help you live longer. Not the pets, per se, but the seeds you use to grow the sprouts. In recent years, chia seeds have become popular with runners and other athletes to help boost endurance. The seeds are rich in fiber, protein and Omega 3s.

Wayne Coates, a foremost expert on chia seeds at the University of Arizona has a new book out. It's called "Chia: The Complete Guide to the Ultimate Superfood." In his free time, Wayne Coates goes on 100-mile runs, and he says during those runs, he often pours chia seeds from a film canister right into his mouth. He says chia seeds have long been a well-kept secret among runners.

WAYNE COATES: An example is the Tarahumara Indians of the Copper Canyon in Mexico. They've been known as the running Indians. And they have used it for years. The Aztec warriors used to carry it on their campaigns, and it is said that that's really what they ate. It gave them sustained energy.

RAZ: The seed is native to southern Mexico and Guatemala. It was a staple for the Aztecs. So why was it forgotten as a food source for so long? Well, Coates blames the Spanish invasion 500 years ago.

COATES: The Spanish, of course, never heard of it, didn't know what it was, and they pushed the natives to produce foods that they were familiar with. We also believe part of it was to do with their religious ceremonies because - their main ceremony of the Aztecs turned out to be just at the same time as Easter. And they actually made statues out of the chia flower and used it like a communion. So the friars were kind of horrified about this, and it was just pushed aside.

RAZ: Fast forward to the early 1990s, Coates, who is also an agricultural engineer, was looking for a profitable crop to grow in Argentina. He found that chia was easy to grow, and he became convinced of its potential as a health food. And it's been taking off in the U.S. Over the past three years, at least 100 chia products have hit the market.

COATES: Add it to anything. I mean, some of our customers put it on their ice cream. We put it on our salad. I put it in my orange juice. You can put in your yogurt. I like crunchy peanut butter sandwiches. Sprinkle it on, you'll have a little more crunch.

RAZ: And for more on the chia phenomenon and recipes, check out our website, npr.org.

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