Chia: The New Superfood

Dubbed the ultimate superfood, Chia is a mighty seed that’s packed with nutritious goodness. Attracting athletes and health-conscious consumers with its wholesome attributes, Chia seeds are beginning to permeate the commercial marketplace.

 Chia plants in Peru, South America

Chia plants in Peru, South America

Food of the Warriors

Chia, or Salvia hispanica , is a member of the mint family native to Mexico and Central America. The ancient species of flowering plant, cultivated for its extremely nutritious poppy-like seeds, served as a staple food for the Aztec, Mayan and Inca civilisations.

 Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe by Christopher McDougall

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe by Christopher McDougall

Christopher McDougall, author of Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, says: “Aztec runners used to chomp chia seeds as they went into battle, and the Hopis [a native American tribe] fuelled themselves on chia during their epic runs from Arizona to the Pacific Ocean. The Mexican state of Chiapas is actually named after the seed; it used to rank right up there with corn and beans.”

Despite its nutritious goodness, the seed was banned during the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1519 and virtually lost. It wasn’t until 1991 – when the University of Arizona led a programme to establish alternative crop species for Argentine farmers – that the Western world became aware of the ancient crop.

A Real Super Seed

Rich in antioxidants, high-quality protein and minerals including calcium, potassium and phosphorus, the chia seed is considered a superior food source. It’s also loaded with omega-3 fatty acids and alpha linolenic acid – a polyunsaturated fatty acid found in plants – which are particularly beneficial for protecting against heart disease and lowering cholesterol. Argentine chef Juliana Lopez May says: “Doctors in the US are recommending chia as a substitute to red meat because it’s free from cholesterol but high in protein.”

Full of soluble fibre, the super-seeds form a gel-like consistency when dissolved in water. If eaten raw, this gel coats the stomach and creates a barrier between carbohydrates and digestive enzymes. This barrier slows the absorption of sugar into the blood stream, which sustains energy levels and provides a lasting feeling of fullness.

The Chia seed’s hydrophilic structure allows it to absorb huge amounts of water – making it an effective hydration tool for athletes and fitness fanatics. “In terms of nutritional content, a tablespoon of Chia is like a smoothie made from salmon, spinach and human growth hormone,” claims McDougall, who’s book is credited with shining the spotlight on chia as suitable fare for athletes. He goes on to say: “If you had to pick just one desert island food, you couldn’t do much better than Chia, at least if you were interested in building muscle and lowering cholesterol; after a few months on the Chia diet, you could probably swim home.”

In terms of nutritional content, a tablespoon of Chia is like a smoothie made from salmon, spinach and human growth hormone
— Christopher McDougall
 Chia seeds

Chia seeds

Chia devotees, like McDougall, evangelise its ability to aid weight loss, reduce inflammation and stabilise blood sugar levels, but these claims are currently largely unfounded. Katherine Ulbricht, editor of the US-based Natural Standard Research Collaboration – an independent group that gathers research on alternative medicine – believes Chia’s nutritional make-up holds potential for cardio health, but says there’s still a lot of research to be done. “If you look at chia as an isolated product, the scientific data is comparably lacking,” she says.

David Nieman, director of the Human Performance Labs at Appalachian State University in the US, says: “As a nutritional package they’re wonderful, but I wouldn’t call it a miracle food.” In 2009, Neiman studied 90 overweight people over a 12-week period and found that the consumption of chia made little impact to their weight or health status. “There’s a lot of interest in this ancient seed, and I just think it’s half amazing nutrition, but half marketing.”

Fuel to the Chia Fire

Consumer demand for foods with health-promoting or disease-preventing properties is on the rise. The total market growth for functional foods is set to reach $29.8bn by 2014 – a 22.8% increase from 2010 (Leatherhead Food International, UK).

 Coconut milk Chia seed pudding

Coconut milk Chia seed pudding

Why this dramatic resurgence? British nutritional therapist Vicki Edgson puts it down to our manufactured lifestyle. “As our foods are becoming more processed, we are looking for original foods that the tribes people lived on.” May contributes the craze to the seed’s close relationship to Peruvian food, which is also enjoying a culinary explosion.

Chia is proving a viable ingredient for the functional food market. With a subtle nutty flavour, the seeds make for an undetectable and nutritious addition to existing food and drink products. In the UK, Chia is only allowed to be sold as a bread ingredient at concentrations of up to 5%, or raw from health food stores. Douglas Thompson, nut and seeds manager at UK-based health food brand Holland & Barrett, says: “Interest in chia has been building for the last two years, but it is only in the last six months that the product has been readily available in the UK.”

However, the EU Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes is now examining an application for chia to be approved for use in a wider range of products, including baked goods, breakfast cereals and fruit, nut and seed mixes.

In the US and Australia, chia is an established functional food sensation. According to market research company Mintel, 72 chia products hit the global market in 2011, and 28 have been released in the first half of 2012. It’s particularly prevalent in the US, which introduced 21 products in 2011 and 13 more in 2012. John Roulac, chief executive of US chia brand Nutiva Foods, says: “The growth in demand for chia is almost like a hurricane, it’s so intense.”

 Toasted Maple Pecan Overnight Chia Pudding

Toasted Maple Pecan Overnight Chia Pudding

Manufactured Goods

Chia has a wide range of applications in the commercial marketplace. Its gluten-free properties are making it attractive to the celiac market. A host of brands in the US, Argentina and Australia are incorporating the seeds into gluten-free cake and bread mixes, cookies and muffins and cereal bars. Amy Ruth’s Gluten-Free Baking Mix by domestic chef Amy Ruth Finegold offers a nutritious mix of chia, flax and quinoa suitable for celiac sufferers.

 Chia seed crackers

Chia seed crackers

New York baby food brand HappyBabyFood incorporates Chia seeds into its range of children’s cereals, snacks and pureed meals. Company founder Shazi Vizram says: “We started looking at Salba [a strain of chia seed] after talking with pediatricians and nutritionists and we realised it has the perfect nutritional properties for babies.” The brand is available in 13,000 stores across the US and also online. Australian brand Organic Bubs is also using the seed to give its Sweetcorn and Pumpkin baby food puree a nutritional boost.

San Diego-based Mamma Chia – founded by Janie Hoffman in 2009 – is the first chia-based beverage brand. The gluten-free, organic juices come in a range of exotic flavour combinations, including Blackberry Hibiscus, Cherry Lime and Guava Mamma. Fuelled with chia goodness, the drinks are high in omega-3, protein and fibre. Mamma Chia is available online and in high-end supermarkets and health food stores across the US.

Australian brand The Chia Company is targeting sports enthusiasts and fitness fanatics with its Chia Shots – 8g individual chia seed servings – to intensely hydrate and energise while training.

 Super by Dr Nicholas Perricone

Super by Dr Nicholas Perricone

Chia is also being recommended for animals. Dr. Wayne Coates, a professor at The University of Arizona in the US, claims that horses fed on the seeds showed an improved temperament, enhanced appearance and glossier coat, mane and tail. He also says it helps with pregnancy, insulin resistance and allergies. And research published by the US-based Poultry Science Association suggests that chicken fed on Chia-based fodder will provide meat, milk and eggs with increased levels of omega-3.

The seed is also showing potential in the beauty market, with US beauty brands One Love Organics and Super by Nicholas Perricone touting its epidermal benefits. Super’s chia-infused O-Mega Moisture facial cream promotes the seed’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, as well as its rich levels of omega-3 for healthy, moisturised skin.

Summary

Billed as the new superfood, chia seeds are rich in antioxidants, high-quality protein and omega-3 fatty acids and minerals, including calcium and potassium.

Chia advocates, athletes and health professionals praise the ancient seed’s health benefits, which include its ability to lower cholesterol, aid weight loss and prevent heart disease – although these claims are scientifically unfounded.

Proving its versatility as a functional food, chia is being incorporated into a wide variety of commercial food products, such as baby food, milk and baked goods.

Chia is taking the functional food market by storm. With burgeoning consumer demand for foods with healthy attributes, its nutritious assets and subtle flavour make it an ideal functional boost for food and drink products. This is particularly relevant for the food-to-go market, which caters for the time-poor consumer looking for a quick, nutritious bite.

The seed’s potential is stretching beyond the confines of the food and beverage industry. Beauty brands such as One Love Organics are promoting chia’s epidermal benefits thanks to its high levels of antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids. In light of this, chia could be an attractive commodity for bars, restaurants and spas and hotels, which are catering for the health-conscious crowd.