By Lauren Everitt BBC News Magazine
Many people in the UK won’t have heard of the chia seed, but if regulators give their backing this US superfood craze could be on the way.
Goji berries, kombucha, wheatgrass, acai berries. It seems rarely a year passes without at least one new health-food frenzy.
Everything from handfuls of strange seeds to bacteria-infested yoghurts to espresso-style shots of odd-tasting green juices are touted as a shortcut to wellbeing.
Chia will soon be joining the list. So what exactly is it?
Chia, or Salvia hispanica L, is a member of the mint family from Mexico and South America. The flowering plant can sprout in a matter of days, but chia’s appeal is in the nutritional punch of its tiny seeds.
With more omega-3 fatty acids than salmon, a wealth of antioxidants and minerals, a complete source of protein and more fibre than flax seed, the seeds have been dubbed a “dieter’s dream”, “the running food”, “a miracle”, and “the ultimate super food”, by advocates and athletes.
To some the seeds taste utterly bland, but to others there is a slight nutty flavour. It also can seem expensive compared with other seeds and nuts.
In the UK, the seeds are only currently allowed for sale as a bread ingredient, but over the next few weeks, the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes is poised to allow chia seeds in a wide variety of products including baked goods, breakfast cereals and nut and seed mixes.
Elsewhere in the world, chia-seed products have been springing up over the past few years. In 2011, 72 new chia products hit the market and 28 new chia foods are already out this year, according to research group Mintel. Compare that with only seven new chia products for all of 2006 and you get a sense of its growing popularity.
The US is particularly infatuated with the seed, introducing 21 new chia items in 2011 and 13 in 2012. It’s in sweets, snack foods, seasonings, yogurt and even baby food.
To chia cheerleaders the seeds do no wrong. They claim chia reduces inflammation, improves heart health, and stabilises blood sugar levels. A few tablespoons are touted as remedying just about anything – without any ill effects
Health food crazes
- Goji berries: The Himalayan fruit is hyped as a “fruit Viagra” and “cellulite-busting” superfood
- Kombucha: The fermented tea is touted as a tonic for digestion problems, hair loss and other ailments
- Acai berries: Advocates claim the palm tree fruit cleanses the colon, prevents cancer and boosts weight loss
- Wheatgrass shots: The concentrated juice made of young wheat plant shoots is purported to have curative properties, particularly for digestion
So is this new superfood all it’s cracked up to be?
“In terms of nutritional content, a tablespoon of chia is like a smoothie made from salmon, spinach and human growth hormone,” writes Christopher McDougall in Born to Run, the bestselling book about an ultra-distance running tribe in Mexico who fuel their epic jaunts with the seeds. The book is credited with shining the spotlight on chia as food for athletes.
“If you had to pick just one desert-island food, you couldn’t do much better than chia, at least if you were interested in building muscle, lowering cholesterol, and reducing your risk of heart disease; after a few months on the chia diet, you could probably swim home,” McDougall adds.
Wayne Coates, co-author of Chia: Rediscovering a Forgotten Crop of the Aztecs, agrees. The University of Arizona professor started experimenting with the seeds in South America more than 20 years ago as part of a project to identify alternative crops for farmers in Argentina. He then started cultivating the seeds commercially.
“I hate to call it a miracle food because there are too many miracles that turn out not to be, but it almost is. Literally, you could live on this stuff because it’s pretty much everything you need,” Coates says.
Elisabeth Weichselbaum of the British Nutrition Foundation admits she had not heard of chia, but she says the foundation doesn’t buy into the idea of a single superfood.
“It is true that some foods are higher in vitamins and minerals, but no single food provides us with everything we need. So the best way to be healthy is to eat a variety of foods,” she says.
As an avid runner, Coates relies on the seeds to power his way through 50 and 100-mile races.
“I actually carry it in a film canister on my runs, I down a half a canister and wash it down with water.”
Jeffrey Walters of the chia producer Omega 3 Chia is also a firm believer. He says the company has received inquiries from the United Nations World Food Programme to bump up the nutrient content of their rice dole.
How chia is eaten
- Mixed in couscous
- Added to bread or muffin mix
- Sprinkled over salad
- Chia gel – seeds are soaked in water to form a gel-like substance added to jelly, jam, yoghurt or salad dressing
- Agua fresca de chia – seeds are stirred with water, lime juice and sugar to make a cold drink
Walters says he has also been contacted by schools looking to sneak nutritional value into canteen fare and doomsdayers searching for a nutrient-dense food to stockpile in the event of a catastrophe.
David Nieman, director of the Human Performance Labs at Appalachian State University, has analysed the nutritional content of chia and its impact on health in a series of studies. Nieman says the seeds “as a nutritional package are wonderful”, but they’re no “magic pill”.
“If you grind it up and sprinkle it on cereal and put it in yogurt, or put it in juice then you are giving yourself a nutritional boost. You’re definitely adding to your mineral, fibre, protein, and omega-3 intake, but will it magically cure disease or take away risk factors? It’s almost like a cult following for some of these chia people, they claim everything under the sun.
“But after 10 to 12 weeks we don’t see anything happening to disease risk factors in free-living people.”
Walters says business has doubled each year for the past four years.
In the UK, chia is permitted in bread products at concentrations up to 5%, according to the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes.
But that’s set to change. The ACNFP recently released a largely positive draft opinion on the expanded use of chia seeds in other foodstuffs.
Walters has already seen a drive toward the UK market. One of his clients requested a huge quantity of chia for UK products for 2013.
Health food chain Holland & Barrett already offers whole and milled chia seeds online, ostensibly as a bread ingredient.
“Interest in chia has been building for the last two years, but it is only in the last six months that the product has been readily available in the UK,” according to Holland & Barrett’s nuts and seeds manager Douglas Thompson.
Although the hype may be new in the UK, the seeds have been around for hundreds of years. The Aztecs relied on chia as a staple food and revered it enough to use for religious ceremonies and medicinal purposes, according to Coates.
“It disappeared for 500 years and the only place you could find it is in a few little villages in Mexico and Guatemala,” Coates says.
But even before Coates and his team picked up on the seeds, chia had something of a cult following in the US.
Until recently, most Americans would recognise it as the cheesy Christmas gift of choice circa 1990. Chia Pets, terracotta figurines which sprout chia in place of hair, grow from the same seeds.
As with any other “miracle food”, it’s important not to see chia as a panacea, says Dr Catherine Ulbricht, founder of the Natural Standard Research Collaboration.
“People think with natural therapies that they can take as much as they want because it’s natural, but they do have potential side effects just like any therapy,” she says.
“Anything that can have an action in your body can also have a reaction. Nothing is 100% spot-on all benefit.”