Chia grows from kitsch to kitchen

by Monica Watrous
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KANSAS CITY – Not long ago, chia seeds served a specific purpose to consumers – to sprout a mossy mane on a terracotta pet.

Click here for a slideshow of chia products.

Lately, the ancient grain has gained novelty as a nutrition powerhouse. Rich in fiber, protein and omega-3 fatty acids, chia seeds are cropping up in such formats as snack bars, beverages, peanut butter, pasta and pudding. Food and drink products containing chia have grown 84% from 2009 to November 2012, according to Mintel, a Chicago-based market research firm.

This year’s introductions include tortilla chips made with chia seeds from the Garden of Eatin,’ a Hain Celestial Group brand. The Chia Co. is launching chia cooking oil, as well as pudding in mango, banana and vanilla bean flavors. LesserEvil Healthy Brands is introducing popcorn made with milled chia seeds, which is in response to the success of its line of Chia Crisps, a baked snack in dill pickle, jalapeno white cheddar, feta and black olive, and Southern barbecue varieties.

Mamma Chia this spring is rolling out a squeezable fruit and vegetable snack containing chia, following its 2011 launch of organic juice beverages featuring the seed.

Additionally, Nature’s Path Foods has expanded its chia offerings with bread, frozen waffles, cereal and granola bars. Al Dente Pasta Company produces a line of dry noodles, including linguine and fettuccine, made with ground chia. New York Superfoods makes peanut butter with chia seeds in three varieties: original, espresso and chocolate. Health Warrior recently unveiled chia-based energy bars in chocolate peanut butter, acai berry and coconut flavors.

“We in the natural food world feel like everyone knows about it, but there’s so much white space with people who are unfamiliar with the story and the food,” said Shane Emmett, chief executive officer of Health Warrior. “There’s a heavy opportunity to really define this unique food and add it to the American nutrition lexicon.”

Grown in Mexico, South America and Australia, the seed known botanically as Salvia hispanica was a staple of Aztec and Mayan diets. Gluten-free and vegan-friendly, chia has a mild flavor and may absorb 10 times its weight in water, creating a feeling of fullness in the stomach. Some consumers favor it over flax, which must be ground before consumption and may develop off-flavors if stored improperly.

A number of manufacturers, including Dole Food Company, Inc., offer chia seeds in whole or milled forms, which may be added to anything from stir-fries and salads to cakes and cookies.

“Chia is so versatile – it goes well in lots of things,” said Janie Hoffman, founder of Mamma Chia. “When I started, I was putting chia seeds in everything I was making in my kitchen.”

Rising demand and lower crop yields pinched the seed’s supply last year, creating commodity headwinds and “a lot of out-of-stocks in chia in the back half of 2012,” said Mr. Emmett. The shortage prompted a hike in price, which doubled and tripled in some cases, said Ms. Hoffman.

While rising costs may lead some to question whether chia is poised to be a passing craze like the Chia Pet itself, Ms. Hoffman and others believe in the seed’s staying power.

“The power of nutrients in chia itself proves it’s not going to be a fad,” Ms. Hoffman said. “Personally, I only see it growing, and I think it will really be a gift to the planet that we have this amazing ancient grain that’s back and flourishing.”

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READER COMMENTS (1)

By Angela Balouch 3/22/2013 8:36:00 AM
Fantastic LOVE LOVE CHIA - put it in EVERYTHING.. I sincerely hope that we do not strip the nutrients from this beautiful seed by putting it in EVERYTHING and calling it healthy... :) no Chia Pop Please!!