The Chia Craze

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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.

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.

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