Sales and demand for chia products have grown strongly in recent years, raising its status as an Aztec ‘superfood,’ while some producers have experienced price and supply issues.
The chia seed market, hampered by turbulence since 2014, shows signs of a steady recovery, but is not entirely risk-free. Part of the problem stems from the imbalance between a drastic reduction of the cultivated area, growing consumption, and a halt in the industry’s development due to unsustainable demand. Although it originated in Mexico and Central America, chia has also found an agricultural home in South America.
The business for chia is inevitably following the footsteps of other emerging Latin American superfoods such as quinoa and maca. Prices plunged in 2014 as a result of overproduction. Now the little seed, rich in omega-3, is going through “one of the most challenging crises”, admits Francisco Jose Aquino, manager of Chia Corp, one of the leading players in the development of the chia seed sector.
In 2013, the chia price peaked a record $11 per kilo. “The high price motivated a lot of farmers to produce chia, thinking they would get rich and sell it as soybeans,” Mr. Aquino says.
And 2014 was the first year that all the producing countries, including Mexico and Central America, harvested with reasonably good yields. “The market was flooded with chia and prices crashed to $1,5 per kilo,” he adds.
Luckily the sector is getting back on its feet. But the problem now is that many producers have abandoned chia this year because of the stockpiles from the previous season. “Today the market is running out of chia and there is not enough to supply before August or September 2016,” says Mr. Aquino.
Victor Fong, international sales director at Mexico’s Best Ground SA de CV says that while chia is an excellent product, the last two years have been very difficult for Mexico as organic chia production decreased and buyers have turned to conventional rather than organic, or they decided to buy from other countries. “Pricing by Argentina and Paraguay has been extremely low, so it has also been hard for Mexico to compete,” explains Mr. Fong. “Mexico also has to mature the relationship between producers and exporters.”
Santiago Stacey, managing director of Kunachia, agrees with Mr. Aquino and Mr. Fong. “Until it becomes more regulated, there are always going to be ups and downs in the chia market,” he says.
Mr. Stacey regrets that, most of the time, the numbers projected by the growers are based on forecasts that are “neither realistic nor sustainable”. “But the good news”, he says, “is that Chia consumption keeps growing. It’s not just a trend anymore, but an essential part of millions of people’s daily diet. The challenge is, and always will be, to have a balance between demand and supply”.
“Dedicated consumers of organic products will not make any changes, but in Mexico in the past two years, chia consumption is growing slowly due to the high price. However, people consider chia a very healthy product, so we can predict that the consumption will show continued growth,” Mr. Fong adds.
Mr. Aquino expects the prices will recover their historical levels of $3,5 to $4,5 per kilo quickly. He believes that one of the main challenges now is to convince producers from South America to plant again in January and to trust the chia industry.
“The harvest of chia varies by altitude,” says Stacey. “In the coast you have up to three cycles per year compared to two cycles in the highlands”.
Chia Corp is one of the first companies in the chia market. It started to grow the black and white seed in 2005, before the boom. The firm has production units in Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, Ecuador and Colombia.
“We are in the top five in terms of volume and sales,” says Aquino. Currently the firm offers 15,000 metric tonnes, employs 150 people and sells the chia seeds to all continents. “We meet the strictest quality standards, like the Japanese and Australians. Our plants have been inspected by the FDA and are both Certified ISO 22000 and Kosher,” he adds.
The key to keeping a healthy market is transparency and knowing the suppliers and traders along the supply chain. “Bulk buyers should ask the producer for a microbiological analysis so you can certify the chia is up to the highest standards,” says Stacey. “Quality chia seeds should be flat, 2mm round and firm with a purity of 99.5 per cent and moisture under 10.0 per cent.”
Chia seeds should be white or black, not brown or yellowish which are immature and contain fewer minerals, protein and omega-3. “Always request a recent microbiological analysis for the lot number you are purchasing, to discard salmonella, moulds, yeasts, and E. Coli,” Stacey advises.
Kunachia made its debut in 2013 in Ecuador. The firm is now the largest chia company in the South American country and has grower partners in Paraguay and Argentina. Kunachia exports organic and conventional chia seeds to Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, the US and Canada.
“We recently entered the US market with our new Chia + Probiotics, first blend of its kind in the world”, says Stacey. The company adds the strain Bacillus Coagulans, guaranteed to be the most shelf-stable probiotic not requiring refrigeration.
“Kunachia + Probiotics guarantees that 1 billion CFU’s live probiotics per tablespoon will benefit your intestinal flora daily,” explains Stacey. “Probiotics feed on soluble fibre to improve their effect on the intestinal flora.”
Chia seeds, being one of the highest sources of soluble fibre, are the perfect fuel for probiotics. “The blend supports the digestive and bone health, strengthens the immune system and provides chia’s nutritional benefits such as fibre, protein, omega-3, antioxidants and calcium,” he adds.
Both Chia Corp and Kunachia are aiming to boost their exports by expanding into the European and Asian markets. Best Ground offers chia, agave natural sweeteners and other superfoods through six distribution centers worldwide.