Benexia was one of the early players in the chia game and began its large scale cultivation in 2000. The company grows its chia in Bolivia and Argentina and was one of the leaders in an effort to found a regional organization for chia growers to expand the category and work on ingredient standardization.
After a fast start, ingredient lost steam
Once the word got out about the ingredient’s health properties, chia became trendy and demand grew strongly in the 2011-2016 time frame. Imports of raw chia seeds into the United States hit the 20,000 ton mark in 2016, according to information supplied by Benexia. In early 2017, Euromonitor said launches with chia topped the ancient grain category.
Chia would seem to have had all the tools it needed for continued growth in demand. With omega-3s, fiber, antioxidants, clean label, non-GMO, gluten-free, and plant-based, the ingredient ticks many of the hot button boxes for twenty-first century consumers.
But Benexia CEO Sandra Gillot told NutraIngredients-USA that the attempt to found a chia organization foundered, and demand for the ingredient has leveled off, and in the meantime competition ramped up. So the company is pushing the SOW brand as a way to reinvigorate interest in the ingredient and get it in front of more consumers.
Quality issues have dented demand
“The market for raw chia seed is stagnating somewhere between 17,000 and 20,000 tons per year. Quality issues have been limiting the expansion of the market. Chia seed has lost momentum!” Gillot said.
“Consumers are very conscious about how good and healthy it is, but the alternatives in the healthy food corner are more numerous and diverse every day. There is a challenge here for chia to keep innovating in new formats for consumption that would be easy for people to integrate into their daily lives,” she said.
Gillot said the failure of the chia association idea has been particularly galling. Chia is a crop that exhibits some natural variability, and not all growers were willing to work toward developing a standard, she said.
“It turns out that not all growers agreed upon what quality chia means in terms of the cultivation and processing standards that need to be upheld. Benexia continues to lead by example in this category with soil-to-table best practices on premium quality chia, and is hopeful that in the future, other growers will all come into alignment for quality chia vision and mission,” she said.
New consumer products to the rescue
In addition to the dietary supplement products introduced in a soft launch in 2018, the SOW brand is now launching a chia milk product, chia pasta that’s high in protein and fiber and a chia oil positioned as a salad dressing constituent. All of the products fit into a clean label mindset with a very short ingredient list. The plan is to develop the brand as a full on commercial enterprise, and to that end Benexia is cooperating with distributor KeHE.
“We have implemented an ambitious and yet realistic roll-out plan for our SOW brand, and we should be sold nationwide in the near future. Having said this, we need to stay focused during the introduction phase to support these first-wave retailers. We are actively selling our product line in approximately 250 supermarkets and are aiming to double this number within the next 6-to-9 months,” said Bas Ruijten, commercial manager for Seeds of Wellness.
Ruijten said signing on with KeHE means the brand will be in nationwide distribution soon. The initial targets are California, New York and Florida, he said.
Clean process naturally flows into clean label
Gillot said Benexia’s commitment to quality means the company was able to create a chia milk that exhibits none of the mucilaginous texture that was characteristic of early chia beverages.
“Our chia ingredients are produced through very clean processing and high technological extraction equipment that allow us to obtain ingredients which work easily in food formulation and have a great taste and texture. The SOW milk has no ‘gooey’ texture. We think chia milk could really shine in this market,” she said.