Chia leads the ancient grain field as new forms drive innovation

By Stephen Daniells

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock/AnjelaGr
© iStock/AnjelaGr

Related tags Chia Salvia hispanica

Omega-3s, fiber, antioxidants, clean label, non-GMO, gluten-free, and plant-based: Chia ticks many of the hot button boxes for 21st Century consumers, so it is perhaps unsurprising that it is turning up in more new products than any other ancient grain.

Data from Innova Market Insights shows that new product launches with chia in 2016 have been superior to any other ingredient (see figure 1 below). 

Innovation in ingredient forms is driving a lot market expansion, Sandra Gillot, CEO, Benexia, Santiago de Chile, told us. “Although direct seed consumption is still the most relevant market segment, Chia seeds are being utilized by more industries and in new forms, including oil, powders, chia protein, and chia fiber, to deliver the seed’s health benefits through different market channels,”​ she said. “Functional food and beverage, cereals, bars, bakery, animal feed and cosmetics are new applications areas made possible by the new offer of chia ingredients.”

“It is key for the chia industry to diversify the forms to deliver chia to the final consumer, and this is what we do at Benexia,” ​she added.

Chia oil

Chia oil in particular is a developing market, she noted. It is not very significant compared to the seed market, but Gillot describes it as an “exceptional ingredient with tremendous potential in the oils and fats industry”​.

“The oil requires a lot of care in the production process, so to offer the consumer all the bioactive substances that makes this oil so special – the tocopherols, the phytosterols, the polyphenols and other antioxidants that are contained in the seed – must remain in the oil when extracted. 

“For its flavor, and its exceptional stability, this oil should be used widely in the food and nutraceutical industries. However, more awareness is needed.”

Chia vs other grains Source Innova 2016
Figure 1. New product development for chia vs other ancient grains. Source: Innova Market Insights 2016

A growing body of science supporting the health benefits of the oil will help with awareness. For example, a recent study published in Nutrients (2015, Vol. 7, No. 8, pp. 6405-6424)​ found that women consuming Benexia chia oil transferred high levels of DHA to their infants during breast-feeding. The study is reportedly the first published study of its type involving pregnant and lactating women.

“Our research has demonstrated that chia oil intake, a natural good source of ALA, allows an important modification in the EPA content of erythrocytes in pregnant mothers and an interesting increase of DHA in their milk,” ​reported researchers from the University of Chile.

US chia market

The global chia seed market is expected to reach US$1.5 billion by 2021, registering a CAGR of 40.62% during the forecasted period from 2016 to 2021, according to Research and Markets​.

Imports into the US are increasing steadily, with data from Datamyne indicating that about 30.000 tons of chia was imported in 2016 (see figure 2 below).

Chia Imports to the US 2008-2015
Figure 2. US chia imports. Source: Datamyne provided by Benexia

Since the much touted tightness in the chia supply several years ago​, there has been a proliferation of chia growers attracted by high prices in 2012, said Gillot.

“This brought a large oversupply and large inventories until 2015, which generated an important price adjustment. Many of these new producers and traders were informal, with less or no experience a large quantity of low quality chia. Currently, buyers have become aware of quality and issues and are requesting quality products, and many small actors in the supply side have left the scene,” ​she said.

“Since mid-2016, with a lower harvest and the consistent growing demand for chia products, prices are increasing and returning to normal levels. In the long run, average price should not incentive large chia harvests, supporting the production of chia value added products.”

Speaking with NutraIngredients-USA in 2012​, Gillot said that South American suppliers were exploring the possibility of establishing a regional organization, a Chia Council, to further develop the business.

“The Chia Council, despite a lot of efforts, didn’t happen as such,” ​Gillot told us. “The variety of actors inside the group was too diverse, as well as their interests. Today, there is a still a place to be taken by an international organization to give more formality to the industry and its participants. We need some time, and the upcoming Industry stabilization will help in this sense. Benexia will always be at the forefront to support a serious and credible Chia Industry initiative.”  

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