Chia is an ancient grain native to Central America that has been grown for many centuries. Morini said it has no worldwide standard of identity, so the nutrient content of the seeds can vary widely depending on the specific cultivar and growing region (the plant is now regularly cultivated from Mexico to Bolivia and beyond). Morini, who made his first splash in the food world as a pioneer of vegan ‘cheese’ with a company now known as GoVeggie, set about developing the high quality, standardized cultivar of chia he brands as Anutra.
Morini said the cultivar is high in omega-3 (ALA) and omega-6 (linolenic acid) fatty acids, as well as being high in fiber, protein and calcium. The raw material for his product is grown in partnership with local farmers in Nicaragua, so he says he can control the inputs to obtain a consistent crop.
“The grain has been around for something like 5,000 years. When I checked out the grain I found out there were more than 500 cultivars. I set out to develop a new cultivar, and I had it on the market at very small scales starting in about 2002,” Morini told FoodNavigator-USA.
There are are a number of chia suppliers who could tout the quality of their products. Colorado-based Salba Smart, for example, claims its chia is a standardized product that is superior in several nutrient measures to garden variety chia. So to have a true differentiator, Morini needed another attribute and he came up with a milling process that significantly improves the functional properties of the grain.
Morini received a US patent on his process in July. The complex process, which involves a specific sequence of mixing, milling, heating and drying stages, yields particles in the 80-90 micron size and creates an ingredient that is much easier to work with than standard chia, he said. One of the big bonuses of Morini’s process is that it claims to mitigate the mucilaginous texture of chia seeds when they’re mixed with water. Standard chia seeds, when hydrated, exude a sludge that makes the whole resemble something akin to tapioca pudding. While attractive to some consumers, it’s a barrier to entry for most.
“Because chia contains omega3 and insoluble fiber it has been difficult to use. It couldn’t be put into juice, for example, because it doesn’t solubalize,” Morini said.
Nutrient content claims
Morini said the milling process allows the ingredient to be added in a relatively trouble free manner to existing formulations to boost the nutrient content. Because of the seed’s omega-3 density, it can also allow formulators to make some attractive nutrient content claims, he said. At a one gram inclusion, Morini said a formulator could make a “good source of” omega-3 content claim, whereas at a 2 gram inclusion rate, an “excellent source of” claim is possible.
Consultant Bob Hartpence, who is acting as a sales representative for the brand in North America, said Anutra as a powdered ingredient (the whole grain is also for sale direct to consumers) is hitting the market at a propitious time. FDA’s new food labeling requirements are in the offing, which will lay bare some aspects of food formulation, such as added sugars, that some companies might prefer to be less forthright about. Hartpence said companies are scrambling to boost nutrition and clean up their labels in advance of the compliance deadline, which at the moment is July 2018 for the biggest companies and a year later for companies with less than $10 million in annual sales.
“Right now is a unique time because virtually every company is looking to clean up their label unless they’re selling junk food and they don’t care,” Hartpence said. In addition to its nutritional benefits, the ingredient also has some nice functional properties that can aid in achieving the right texture and in replacing fat. And the chia name has gained prominence in the marketplace, so having it on the label is plus, as many consumers now have a positive association with its health properties, he said.
“Chia right now is exploding. It’s one of the fastest growing ingredients. This is a free flowing powder that can go into virtually any food or supplement product,” Hartpence said. “It can help replace and minimize the starch systems and gum systems that formulators are using. It’s clean label, and it’s chia, and a lot consumers know that chia is good for them.”
The powdered ingredient is already in a number of products, including a powdered product branded as PC-10 that has been a hot seller at GNC, Hartpence said. The product is being sold for its omega-3 and satiety benefits.