South American producer Andean Grain Products is expanding its organic & conventional chia into retail-ready products, helped by increasing demand for high-quality omega-3 products and vegetarian proteins. Warren Beaumont spoke with company co-founder Thomas Spillane.
Californian Thomas Spillane and his business partner, Argentinian Cristian Miguens founded Andean Grain Products in 2013 after they had worked together in the finance sector in London.
Traveling to the US, Thomas saw the enormous growth in chia related products in US supermarkets, but noted, back to London, it was nowhere to be seen. “Cristian and I studied the trends in healthy foods in Europe and the U.S. in-depth. We concluded that it was only a matter of time until chia started growing in popularity in Europe,” he said.
With Thomas’s background in the business and finance side of things and Cristian's origins from a family that has produced everything from soy to cattle in South America for generations, the two were well placed to put together the investment and partnerships needed to get started.
Many of the company’s customers are in continental Europe. Andean Grain Products has a commercial office in London, the UK, and a warehouse for less than container load volume distribution in Antwerp, Belgium.
Although chia has been known in Mexico and Central America for centuries, the main production areas for the small white and black seeds are currently in Argentina and Bolivia. “Our primary chia seed comes from the Argentinian province of Salta,” Thomas said. “We have contracted and sourced additional production from partner
farmers in the region as well as in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, though chia from Argentina is our strength and focus as a company.”
Andean Grain is committed to producing foods using agricultural practices that respect the environment. The company received Novel Food authorization for its chia seed a few years ago and, more recently, in February, for its chia oil. “Both products continue to grow strongly, and we continue to find new potential markets in the nutrition and cosmetic sectors,” Thomas said.
Andean Grain also announced in February that it established a partnership with Bioriginal Europe/Asia B.V. to produce and market the Andean Sol brand of cold-pressed chia oil. Bioriginal Europe/Asia B.V. is a Dutch subsidiary owned by an American company called Omega Protein, which is listed on the NYSE.
“Bioriginal handles the manufacture and distribution of our chia oil to customers in Europe while we market and distribute the product outside of Europe,” he said.
“The focus for sales as a company has been Europe, while the US is the largest market for chia seed, though we saw that market as being quite saturated.
“The strategy of Andean Grain Products is to have the control of the source and the soul of a South American company, combined with the highest quality standards and customer service as demanded in Europe and elsewhere.”
Chia prices have fallen in the last few years due to overproduction in South America.Thomas said that despite lower prices and the winding down of previous stocks, yields might not be as good this year due to unfavorable weather conditions in the main chia production areas.
“The harvest of organic chia in Argentina was much lower than our forecast, and we are expecting higher prices this year,” he said in late September.
An issue discussed at the Bolivian Chia Consortium meeting held at BIOFACH Germany in February, and at the launch of ProChia Bolivia during Sial Paris in October (both hosted by Dutch government body CBI) was the need to ensure high-quality standards and purity for chia - this is what the market demands.
“On the quality side of things, this relates mostly to the level of contaminants and microbiological growth. To the naked eye and the end consumer, most chia seeds look similar, and this is hard to determine, though it is most definitely even more important than purity since it can negatively impact peoples’ health,” he said.
“It is critical to understand and monitor the product and to control the entire supply chain, from field to processing plant, to shipping and finally to storage and distribution.
“We thoroughly analyze every lot for an array of possible contaminants to ensure that the product is safe for consumption and have controls in place to minimize microbiological growth through the climate controlled warehouses we use to store the product in Europe,” Thomas added.
“Sourcing chia from different regions is more important for ensuring a stable supply." Quite common climatic events such as drought or hail can destroy a crop in an area, so some diversification of supply is essential.
A positive development is that the market for certified organic chia continues to grow strongly, with consumers becoming more health conscious and health trends such as the demand for sustainably produced omega-3’s, high-quality vegetarian proteins and gluten-free foods.
“For chia seed, I think there is still plenty of room for educating people on its health properties and benefits,” he said. “I am still surprised sometimes at the number of individuals who ask me ‘What’s that? ‘when I mention our product. When I tell them about the benefits they then become quite interested, so this shows me that we as an industry still have plenty of room to grow.”
Andean Grain has seen impressive growth in the range of products that incorporate chia seed, such as the array of bread, cereals and snack foods promoting chia seed on their labeling.
“Following the success in the US of the chia drink brand Mamma Chia, in Europe, we see new drinks that incorporate chia seed such as that marketed by the Austrian company, Chia Birds,” Thomas said. “And chia oil is being promoted as an omega-3 supplement, particularly in gel caps. It is also a mild tasting salad dressing.
"We are working on some retail and consumer products using chia seed and chia oil that we hope to share with the public shortly, so watch this space.”
Until now, Andean Grain has focused on supplying the raw materials and ingredients in bulk but is branching out into more retail-ready products. The most recent new chia related product the company launched this year has been the cold-pressed chia oil that is seeing increased interest.
“On the functional ingredients side we have growing demand for our Partially Defatted Chia Flour which is the ‘left-overs’ of the chia seed after cold pressing that we then mill into flour,” Thomas said.
"Chia seeds absorb liquids and form a gel. It turns out that the water holding property of chia has interesting functional uses and can act as a stabilizer and thickening agent in applications like bread, and for foods, you would never think of such as meat and even ice cream" he added.
“Related to this we are doing first tests with industry partners on incorporating Partially Defatted Chia Flour produced from white chia seed instead of black chia seed since coloring, of course, has a significant impact on the desirability of some products in the eye of the consumer,” Thomas explained.
“Another new product coming up is steam-sterilized chia seed. In standard chia seed, a certain level microbial presence is entirely reasonable, and the product is safe to eat, though some industries require as close to pure as possible microbiological numbers.”
While Europe is still Andean Grain's export focus, with substantial growth potential, it is increasingly receiving inquiries from and is selling into markets in Asia.
On the outlook for chia, Thomas firmly believes that the tiny seed rich in omega three is here to stay and is not a fad. “Chia is an impressively nutritious little seed, and its properties are in line with growing health trends,” he said. “We continue with plans to expand our sourcing and production to meet the growing demand for it and other superfoods and natural ingredients from the Andean region of South America.”