From the Corners of the World: Chia: Ancient Crop, Novel Opportunities

By Paul Altaffer &nGrant Washington-Smith | May 1, 2011

There is a small but emerging trend in product development toward ancient crops, and leading this trend is chia.

According to, Chia (Salvia hispanica L) is an annual herbaceous plant, belonging to the mint family, in a group of plants known as “sage.” Cultivation of chia may date back as far as 2600 B.C., and it has been part of the staple diet for these many centuries of the Aztec and Mayan nations in Mexico as well as native populations in America’s southwest. The state of Chiapas in Mexico has gained its name from the Nahuatl word “chiapan,” meaning river of chia. Aztec warriors are said to have supplemented with chia to give them energy and vigor on their conquests. A teaspoon of chia seeds may have been the primary source of nutrition to drive a warrior through a 24-hour forced march.
The pre-Columbian people of Central and North America are believed to have had a much better diet than our contemporary counterparts. This is in large part due to the consumption of ancient grains like amaranth, maize (corn) and especially chia. From early history on through today, chia is consumed broadly throughout Central America, Mexico and the Southwestern U.S. It is used in a variety of different recipes, including a beverage that blends chia with lime and sugar, known as “chia fresca” or “Iskiate.”
Taramuhara: The ‘Running People’ and Chia
The fairly reclusive Taramuhara people became known to households around the world, and especially in the running community, because of the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. The book describes this incredible people, as well as their diet and passion for running. The people of Taramuhara tribe in the Copper Canyons of Mexico are known to ultra-marathon runners for their endurance, speed and resilience under duress. They are a people with a deep and ancient custom for running long distances in the mountains, a skill that is taught young—children learn to run as they learn to walk.
A staple in the diet of the Taramuhara is chia. In fact, chia is often carried with runners on their long, mountainous runs. Chia has a combined nutrition value with endurance and post-exercise recovery enhancing properties that make it a perfect food for endurance athletes.
What’s in Chia?
Chia is often referred to as a “superfood” for its nutritious composition—and for good reason. Most notably, chia is recognized as a valuable vegetarian source of essential fatty acids (EFAs). It is a very rich source of omega 3 (ALA-alpha linoleic acid) and omega 6 (LA-linoleic acid). Chia contains 12-20% by weight omega 3 and 3-7% omega 6. This is important because the ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 is very high, at around 3:1 or 4:1.
Chia is also a rich source of dietary fiber (30-40% by weight), and although it is mostly insoluble fiber, the soluble fiber in chia has very interesting properties (more on the gel properties later). Chia is also a rich and complete (containing all the essential amino acids) source of protein—18-25% by weight. Equally important, the proteins are considered easy to digest. It also contains antioxidant phytochemicals like catechins, flavonoids and phenolic acids. Finally, chia contains important minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, zinc and boron. These are associated with healthy electrolyte levels, bones and immune function.
EFAs and Chia Goodness
There is rising awareness of the health benefits of ancient grains, principally chia, with the publication of many scientific studies linking the benefits with its compounds (principally omega 3 ALA) to a variety of health benefits. Scientific studies have linked the consumption of ALA to reduced risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD).
Chia naturally possesses a high content of ALA and a high ratio of ALA to LA (3:1 or 4:1 omega 3 to omega 6). This ratio is important, as significant health benefits, especially cardiovascular benefits, have been demonstrated where the consumption of fatty acids is either similar (1:1) or where the concentration of omega 3s is higher than those of omega 6s. According to Dr. Rudi Moerck, president and CEO of Valensa International, Eustis, FL, “A number of chronic health conditions like cardiovascular disease and diabetes have been related to the excessive consumption of omega 6 fatty acids in the typical Western diet. Even obesity may be affected by this.”
In addition to the health benefits associated to the EFA, protein, fiber, mineral and antioxidant content, chia has some other interesting properties that add to its mystique as a “superfood.” Chia has water-absorbing properties, allowing it to absorb up to 12 times its weight in water. Anecdotally, people who consume chia are able to store more water and electrolytes, thereby slowing the depletion during strenuous exercise.
Chia also has gel-forming (from soluble fibers) properties. For those who have consumed a beverage containing chia, you would notice the seeds take on a gel-like consistency and suspend in the water base. This gelling property seems to slow the absorption and metabolism of carbohydrates into sugar, thereby extending endurance.
Chia Ingredient Development
As a leading supercritical fluid extraction company, Valensa International develops and offers a variety of branded, proprietary ingredients based on chia as well as other ingredients with high EFA content. Dr. Moerck claims there are several product development opportunities with ingredients like chia. “Chia seed contains the highest concentration of omega 3 from a single botanical source. The oil extracted from chia is not only high in omega 3 (65%), but the antioxidants that are extracted with it help stabilize the product as well, giving it longer shelf life than fish and flaxseed sources. Additionally, the defatted chia seed flour is a rich source of protein and dietary fiber, making ideal for numerous food applications. Its non-obtrusive, pleasant flavor and odor allow it to be used broadly in supplements as well as foods.”
Chia Product Launches
The recent growth in product launches containing chia is an indication both of its success and, more important, its potential for product development going forward. According to data collected by Innova Market Insights, global product launches (food and snack only, does not include supplements) containing chia grew from 18 launches in 2007 to 103 in 2010. This is remarkable growth for a product that few people have heard about or know.
Most recent product launches have been associated with baked goods, with cereal and nutritional bars as well as bread and savory snacks (like chips) as the principle use for chia seeds.
There is a natural potential for development of beverage products with chia, with its traditional use closely linked to beverage applications (i.e., chia Fresca). At the recent Natural Products Expo, there were a couple of beverages in development containing chia that seemed very exciting.
Due to its nutritional value and properties, there are many ways to position products containing chia as well as potential claims that go with them.
Future Market Trends
At a time when functional foods continue to grow in popularity, the regulatory environment is becoming tighter, and the search for novel ingredients is growing, it is hard to imagine an ingredient with greater appeal than chia. Its “superfood” status is growing and the kinds of positioning statements and claims associated with it have been considered to be within acceptable limits, making chia a good candidate for use in product development. Don’t be surprised to find chia in a bottle of supplements, bread, nutritional bar, snack, chip or perhaps in a new energy or recovery beverage product in the near future.

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