Suppliers of chia in Latin America are working together to establish a regional organization to provide education, health and scientific data and to develop standards and a transparent framework in which to further conduct the chia business. The Chia Council would include at least twelve major players such as Benexia (Chile), Naturkost de Mexico Sierra y Selva (Peru) and Chia Blanca (Mexico), that represent around 80 percent of the chia available in the market.

“With the Chia Council we aim to get together farmers, processors, exporters and retailers, to work in the same way to educate the market and standardize qualities”, said Andree Hoeping project manager and sales director at certified organic supplier Naturkost Uebelhor (NKU). The Council would also act as an industry self-regulation body that would ensure chia is supplied under good trade practices. All clinical, food and agricultural research will be coordinated and gathered together in just one source. One possible topic of study for the Chia Council is whether there are major differences in quality and nutritional profile of black and white seeds and blends and their content of Omega-3 fatty acids, for instance, between Mexico and South American growing areas.

Despite new plantings in Mexico and South America chia availability is a major issue indeed, says CEO of Organic Sierra & Selva, Cesar Zorilla Wong. He points out that Argentina and Paraguay had very difficult weather conditions this crop season, and only a fraction of the projected amounts could be harvested, while Peru and Ecuador have seen severe rain conditions. “Demand for chia is also growing very quickly in Latin America, where people are starting to become more aware of their diets”, said Mr. Zorilla.

Positive media coverage about the health benefits of chia is just one of the factors helping sales and demand grow. However, Mr. Hoeping said one of the unfortunate trends is that there are a lot of traders in the market who have no experience with chia seeds and are speculating with the prices and paying little attention to product quality.

Based in Leutkirch-Friesenhofen in southern Germany, Naturkost Uebelhor has been pioneering the little South American ‘superfood’ in Europe. The firm started a project with organic chia before the product was well known and was the first trader in the EU in 2010 of organic certified black and white chia seeds, cultivated in Mexico, chia’s country of origin. In 2008 NKU established Naturkost de Mexico for its Sachia chia brand under the coordination of Alejandro Palacio. The operation has expanded with producers from Guatemala and most recently with Bolivia and Peru.

Chia received novel food status in the EU in 2009 and approval for use in bread applications at a maximum level of 5 percent. With sales growing strongly globally and supply tightening, further expansion may be coming in new Asian countries and broader applications in the EU and the UK; markets expected to follow North America and Australia as the next regions to embrace consumption of the Latin American ‘super food’ chia, according to a report on the BBC earlier this year.

Chia opportunities expand

Chia seed can be a versatile ingredient to enhance the nutritional properties of food and beverages. Analysts at Datamonitor said in a recent report that chia seed aims to provide inspiration to the food and drink industry to meet consumer expectations for products which improve health and wellbeing. Now seen as a ‘super food’, the nutritional value and properties of chia seeds have opened a window of opportunity in bread, energy bars, breakfast cereals, yoghurt, beverages, functional food, dietary supplements and the natural cosmetics sector.

Cereal and snack bar products containing ‘superfoods’ such as chia, quinoa and spelt are expected to perform well in the global market. Research group Mintel said that in 2011, 72 new chia products hit the market, 28 are already out this year, compared with only seven new chia products for all of 2006. Today chia is present in sweets, snack foods, breakfast cereals, seasonings, yogurt and even baby food.

Mintel’s senior global food and drink analyst Chris Brockman said in June there’s a lot of potential for using the ingredient to raise the health profile of snack and cereal bars, which have been 22% of new chia-based launches globally over the last two years. He said a lot depends on the price and availability of the seeds, with current supplies very limited.

Chia seeds (Salvia hispanica L) were staple foods among the Aztec, pre-Spanish civilization of Mexico. Forgotten for about 500 years, the cultivation of the tiny seeds has spread in recent years from small, scattered mountain areas in Mexico and Guatemala to Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Chile and Ecuador. Research has shown that the white and black chia seeds are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, fiber and protein and contain VitaminB1, essential amino acids, calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc.

Chia seed oil provides the highest plant-based omega-3 fatty acid content and are more stable than most natural omega-3 sources, eliminating the off, rancid taste common to many omega-3 sources that makes chia seeds with their tasteless to slight nutty flavour ideal for enriching baked food. “With more omega-3 fatty acids than salmon, a wealth of antioxidants and minerals, a complete source of protein and more fiber than flax, the seeds have been perfect ingredient for our breakfast cereal blend”, said Lyle Hartley, US marketing manager at Canadian HapiFoods Group Inc. creators of the bestseller brand HolyCrap that has rapidly attracted a loyal and quickly growing clientele across the nation and other countries.