Supply bottlenecks for organic chia sourcing reported by O.W.N. in May 2013 due to higher demand and lower crop yields appear to have eased this year, with a resulting drop in price, while some suppliers believe there are major issues over chia transparency and quality in the supply chain.

It’s clear after talking with major suppliers and importers out of South America and Mexico that the price has come back and levelled out after the skyrocketing prices of 2013.

Alejandro Palacio, general manager of Naturkost de Mexico, the chia processing facility of major German chia supplier Naturkost Ubelhor, said demand for chia products is generally growing in Europe, while companies are holding chia stock as buyers wait to see what the new harvest is like and what the prices for chia will be.

Naturkost Uebelhoer was the first supplier to launch organic chia seed in Europe in 2010 and also has a new novel food application underway, Mr. Palacio said.

A South American supplier who did not wished to be named said that sourcing of organic, high quality, non-contaminated chia is complicated. Issues include that it cannot be fumigated and is often processed by producers on older machinery.“There are no issues with chia supply this year so far and the price has fallen by half”, the supplier said.

At the Expo West show in March, there was a lot of talking about the new crop and prices and everybody seemed to have an opinion on that, according to Organic Sierra & Selva of Lima, Peru.

However, the leading Peruvian chia supplier said 2014 could be the ‘Year of Chia’ – the small power seeds are all over the place and more popular than ever.

“Indeed, there will be more chia than in previous years and yes, prices should come down a bit, but it was impressive to see how much chia was offered that hasn’t even been planted,” said Mathias Taubert, commercial director at Organic Sierra & Selva.

“It’s pure speculation, no one knows for sure how much chia will be harvested finally, not to forget that in the past years huge volumes of the tiny seed got lost at the very last moment due to climate issues.

Returning from a trip to the South American chia producing countries, Mr. Palacio said that between Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay insiders estimate current production at 100 thousand tones. There are around 300 thousand hectares cultivated with chia between the three countries. The harvest starts in Argentina in june and ends in Bolivia in September. “If the calculations are right, the price will drop dramatically, below $3,00 per kilo”, said Mr. Palacio. In Peru currently production cost of chia is $3.50 per kilo. “Competition will be strong. Quality, traceability and certifications, will be factors to define who stays in business”, said Mr. Palacio. “ It is estimated that the market may absorb up to 40 thousand tones of chia, 30 thousand in North America and 10 thousand in Europe. What will happen with the surplus will be interesting to see”.

“Apart from that speculation about volumes and prices another thing is very obvious: apparently there is still a lack of knowledge amongst many buyers and producers of chia regarding quality aspects. Many buyers don’t specify their needs in terms of purity levels. That makes it easy for some informal players to offer chia with a purity <99.6% at low prices, the clients don’t seem to know that this is very often a waste or by-product and not recommendable for human consumption,” Mr. Taubert said.

The Peruvian supplier said chia should have a purity >99.9%, but some providers are not capable to clean to that level and irritate the consumers by offering chia that should not be found in the shelves – this lack of knowledge is a major factor for the uncertainty in pricing,

“In 2014 quality aspects will become more important in the chia business; and this will strengthen the position of the formal players against the informal players who try to get their bit of the business speculating with prices and fictive volumes. The large buyers already know who the serious players are in the game – let´s hope that 2014 will be a year of consolidation in that regards, it would be an important step to get to a more mature industry,” Mr. Taubert of Organic Sierra & Selva said.

According to New Hope Natural Media’s March 2014 NEXT Trend, one of the natural products industry’s macro trends is ancient wisdom and it predicts that chia will be used as a co-ingredient with ancient grains in upcoming innovations. Chia is an ingredient most prevalent in the snacks, cookies and candy category followed by diet and nutrition and cereal, breakfast foods categories. Within the snacks, cookies and candy category, other snacks, such as granola-type products, account for 40% of chia-containing products.

This year, chia suppliers are seeking new applications for chia seed and chia oil in the EU, with about five suppliers awaiting new novel foods approvals to expand the use of chia seed and omega-3 rich chia oil beyond bakery, packaged seeds, and adding to salads and breakfast cereal, to applications such as functional ingredients in dairy foods.

New chia seed novel food applications sought for EU

Chia seed is not allowed in the EU market at a level of not more than 10% in other products, under the Novel Foods Regulation.  A novel food is a food or food ingredient that does not have a significant history of consumption within the European Union before 15 May 1997. For any new food product to be introduced on the European market it must be rigorously assessed for safety.

The European Novel Foods Regulation includes a simplified approval procedure when a company believes its novel food is substantially equivalent to a food that is already on the market.

In such a situation, the applicant can submit a notification to the European Commission after obtaining an opinion on equivalence from an EU member state.

UK-based company Andean Grain Products has sought advice on novel foods from the UK Food Standards Agency to consider an application for chia seeds to be approved for use in the European Union under the simplified approval procedure.

Andean Grain Products produces chia from its own farms located in the Salta province of Argentina along the edge of the Andes mountain range and also sources and contracts production with independent farmers and suppliers in Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru.

The applicant’s chia seeds will be used in the same products as those for which approval has been granted last year for the Chia Company’s seeds (bread products, breakfast cereal, fruit, nut and seed mixes and bread and 100% packaged chia seeds).

Chia seeds research for functional food benefits

Extremely high in the essential fatty acid, omega-3, chia seeds are loaded with antioxidants (more than blueberries), vitamins, minerals (including more calcium than milk), fiber (more than most bran products) and protein and now may deliver additional functional food benefits.

A study by Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia found that chia seed gel has potential as a thickening agent, an emulsifying agent and a stabilizer in food applications.

The study, ‘Gelling properties of chia seed and flour’, Dr R. Coorey et al, appeared April 15, 2014 in the Journal of Food Science, online. Researchers found extracted chia seed gel was similar to guar gum and gelatin in regard to such properties as water-holding capacity, oil-holding capacity, viscosity, emulsion activity and freeze-thaw stability.

The study said: “Healthy oil profile of chia has been well established. Chia could also be a good source of gel. The characteristics of chia gel were studied and compared to guar gum and gelatin which are commonly used in the food industry.

“The properties tested were water and oil holding capacities, viscosity, line-spread; emulsification activity and freeze-thaw stability. The extracted chia gels from seeds and flour were analyzed for moisture, ash, protein, crude fiber, oil, and fatty acid profile.

Chia gel is a polysaccharide based gel mainly consisting of crude fiber and carbohydrate.

“Extracted chia seed gel has a great potential in food formulations as thickening agent, emulsifying agent, and as a stabilizer in frozen food product,” the study said.

The mighty little chia seed (salvia hispanica), wild seeds with origins in Mexico and Guatemala, were domesticated by the ancient Aztec and Maya cultures in 2600 BC.