Should you choose Chia Seed or Flaxseed as your horse’s Omega 3 essential fatty acid supplement?

Please note: ‘flaxseed’ and ‘linseed’ are different names for the same seed. In Australia it tends to be called linseed whereas in many other countries it is known as flaxseed. Same thing, different name.

The rise in popularity of chia seeds as a health food supplement that ‘competes’ with flaxseed in the health food market has led to the question – which should you feed your horse? The companies promoting chia as a (supposedly) superior option to flaxseed are at pains to point out the benefits of chia and the apparent flaws of flax; but in the context of using either seed as an Omega 3 supplement for your horse, here’s how they stack up against one another…

Why do horses need Omega 3 Essential Fatty Acid (EFA) supplementation?

Essential fatty acids are called ‘essential’ because they cannot be manufactured by the body and therefore our horses (and ourselves!) rely entirely on our dietary intake to supply them. Unless your horse’s diet predominantly consists of fresh pasture it is likely to have an unbalanced EFA profile, with a far greater proportion of Omega 6 fatty acids than Omega 3. The process of turning fresh pasture into hay results in significant loss of Omega 3 content, and the EFA profile of cereal grains is heavily in favour of Omega 6, with very little Omega 3.

Although both Omega 3 and 6 are needed in the diet, Omega 6 FAs are pro-inflammatory whilst Omega 3s are anti-inflammatory – if the proportion or overall content of Omega 3 is deficient, symptoms of inflammatory processes in the body may appear – itchy, allergy-prone skin is just one such sign.

So, let’s compare chia and flax…

The decision about whether or not a product (such as a horse dietary supplement) offers you good value is a very personal one. Factors to take into account include ‘the cold hard facts’ (such as how much of any particular nutrient you are getting per dollar), how much preparation time the product requires in comparison to a competing product, and whether or not one product offers benefits that the other product lacks which particularly appeal to you.

When digesting the information below on chia and flaxseed it is worth keeping in mind that chia costs almost three times as much as flax – a significant price difference that for many horse owners, understandably, will also carry significant weight in their final decision as to which seed they prefer to use.


Fats – those all important Essential Fatty Acids!
Both chia and flax are approximately one third fat, and both have a high ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids (a ratio similar to that found in fresh grass). Although many who promote the benefits of chia claim that it is higher in Omega 3s than flaxseed, independent data sources such as the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference indicate otherwise, indeed their data reveals that flaxseed has not only a higher overall content of essential fatty acids but that it also has a higher proportion of Omega 3 to Omega 6.

Even if we allow for individual crop variations (the nutrient content of any crop, including chia and flax, is dependent upon the climatic conditions it is grown in, and both chia and flax will have some, usually slight, variations in their composition from crop to crop) the data does not leave room for a claim that chia is a superior source of Omega 3 fatty acids, if anything the data favours flaxseed. However, the differences between them are minimal, both are excellent sources of Omega 3, and there is no outstanding winner.

Chia, like flax, is high in protein for a grain/seed, both usually falling somewhere within the 15-25% range. Chia’s protein is a slightly higher quality protein than flax due to its better amino acid profile, and while this is favourable to chia, in the context of a horse who is already receiving adequate protein in their diet but who requires Omega 3 supplementation, the difference in protein quality need not be a big player in the decision for or against either seed.

Chia and flax are both good sources of fibre – their polysaccharides (the molecules that are responsible for the slimy, gel-like properties of the seeds) help to slow the absorption of sugars into the bloodstream, which suggests the likelihood that both/either of these seeds will provide benefit to horses with insulin resistance. At least one clinical study has shown that feeding chia to rats both prevented and reversed insulin resistance that had been brought on by feeding the rats a sucrose-rich diet.

The mucilaginous fibre of both flax and chia is helpful in preventing a build up of sand in the gut of horses.

Vitamins and Minerals
Both flax and chia contain an array of vitamins and minerals, including calcium, phosphorous, potassium, manganese, copper, zinc and B vitamins. It is oft quoted by the proponents of chia that it is an excellent source of calcium, with phrases such as “Five times the calcium of cow’s milk!” What is usually Not mentioned is that, like flax, chia has even more phosphorous than calcium and thus has a ratio of calcium to phosphorous that is weighted toward phosphorous – the opposite of what is required overall in the diet of humans and horses alike. Thus, while chia is a good source of calcium, other sources of calcium will still be required in the diet to balance out the calcium:phosphorous ratio.

Antioxidants and Anti-inflammatories
Chia is high in antioxidants, higher than flax. As well as being nutritionally beneficial these antioxidants protect chia from going rancid and provide it with a long shelf life. Although flax does not contain the same level of antioxidants as chia, whole flaxseed has a tough seed coat that protects it seed contents from oxidation during storage.

Once ground however, chia seed, because of its higher antioxidant content, has a longer shelf life than ground flaxseed which ideally is fed freshly ground [see below for further information on preparation and digestibility].

Despite being more highly antioxidant than flax, chia does not have a higher anti-inflammatory rating than flax. They are both categorised as Strongly Antiinflammatory, with flax receiving a higher rating (the rating takes into account the overall effect of a number of nutritional factors, including fatty acids and antioxidants).

There is a long- and commonly-held belief that flaxseed can only be safely fed to horses after being boiled for a period of time. This belief, although unfounded, arose due to the presence of components within the seed which can interact to release cyanide. It was believed that linseed had to be boiled for a minimum of an hour to release the cyanide before feeding it. However, it is now known that stomach acid has the ability to inactivate the enzymes which are required to form the cyanide, thus making the feeding of freshly ground linseed safe for horses. In fact, boiling actually destroys, to a large extent, the essential fatty acids in flaxseed, and thus it best fed freshly ground – a domestic coffee grinder easily does the job.

When any seed is ground the protective outer seed coat is broken, allowing digestive enzymes access to the inner components of the seed. It is often said by those spruiking the benefits of chia over flax that chia, unlike flax, does not need to be ground in order to be readily digested. However, at least one study has shown that the protein digestibility of raw whole chia seed is very low but is noticeably improved if the seed is ground into flour.

Although horses use a grinding action when chewing their food, chia seeds are tiny and are fed in combination with bulky feed such as chaff, so we cannot rely on the horse to do a sufficiently thorough job of grinding the seed him/her self. Thus, if feeding chia seed it is recommended that, like flaxseed, it is ground before feeding.

If preferred, cold-pressed flaxseed oil can be used rather than the seed itself but the oil must be kept in the refrigerator to prevent it oxidising and becoming rancid.

Dosage guide:
Horses who do not get most of their nutrition as fresh pasture:

Average horse (450-500kg) Large horse (above 500kg)
Flaxseed 1/2 cup 3/4 cup
Chia 2/3 cup 1 cup

Horses who are partly at pasture and partly hard fed can be fed at half the above rates, and ponies can be fed proportionally less according to their bodyweight.

Please note: the above dosage rates are for whole seed. Once ground, the seed meal increases in volume and thus if you are feeding pre-ground seed use a slightly heaped measurement.

So which seed ‘wins’?

As mentioned at the outset, it’s a personal decision. The main factors to consider are as follows:
BOTH flaxseed and chia are viable, excellent sources of Omega 3 EFA, with the data slightly favouring flaxseed in this regard.
Both seeds are best fed ground to maximise digestibility.

Chia has a slightly better amino acid profile (but the seeds must be fed ground if this benefit is to be utilised).
Both flaxseed and chia are strongly anti-inflammatory, flaxseed somewhat more so despite chia’s higher antioxidant content.
When fed as per the dosage guide above, flaxseed costs approximately one third the price of chia.

Author: Melanie Sweeney Copyright 2011 Country Park.

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