Chia (Salvia hispanica) is a flowering plant native to Southern Mexico and Guatemala. Globally, 80% of the Chia grain seed supply is produced in Latin America countries due to the regions favourable climate, with the rest coming from Australia. However, some African countries are emerging as producers. Chia seeds are not typically grown in Europe. The seeds of the chia plant are small and speckled black, brown, white and grey with a crunchy texture and slight nutty aroma. Black chia seeds from Nicaragua are very rare. The length of the growing cycle for chia seeds varies based on location and is influenced by the height of the land, but is usually between 100 – 180 days.
Chia seeds are packed full of goodness. They are high in fibre and omega-3 fatty acids, rich in protein and a good source of vitamins and minerals. The combination of fat, protein and fibre means the seeds are digested relatively slowly, providing a long, slow release of energy which keeps blood-sugar levels stable. They are also gluten free.
- High in fibre: Chia helps with the feeling of fullness. E.g. 25g portion of chia seeds contains approximately 9g of fibre
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Known for their anti-inflammatory effects, enhancing the brain and a healthy heart. Omega-3 in chia is in the plant form: alpha linolenic acid (ALA).
- High in protein: Chia is a useful source of plant protein and provides a range of amino acids.
- Rich in minerals: Calcium, magnesium and trace elements such as manganese.
- Gluten free: Popular with vegans, vegetarians and consumers suffering from gluten-intolerance.
Chia seeds have many uses from an additive in food and beverages to a nutritional supplement. They can be consumed whole, ground or as an oil, which can be eaten directly or mixed into water, juices, cereals, salads and recipes, or taken in a concentrated pill or powder form. Chia can easily be added to foods including bread and baked goods, breakfast cereals and bars, beverages, pasta, and dairy products, without altering the flavour.
Today chia seeds are used in the development of product innovations giving new products a nutritional value they didn’t have before. Examples are: breads and pittas containing chia seeds, chocolate bars containing 10% chia seeds and quinoa and chia seeds wraps.
Chia seed production is very small compared to other oilseeds. Global linseed production, for example, amounts to more than 2 million tonnes yearly. It is important to recognise that chia seed is a niche product within the large oilseed sector.
In the absence of official data, it is assumed that the global market for chia seeds is around 40,000 to 60,000 tonnes per year. Climate change and annual differences in rainfall can cause large differences in production output.
Latin America has a high domestic consumption of chia and along with the regions rising population and economic standards it is anticipated the demand for chia seeds in these the main growing region will increase.
The United States and Australia generate the highest demand for chia seeds. However, due to its large consumer base and interest in superfoods Asia Pacific is expected to see the fastest growth in demand. Over the past few years has also seen increased demand for chia based products in the UK, Europe, Brazil, Chile, Spain and India.
Due to the high demand and relative low supply of chia seeds the value of chia and products containing chia are much higher compared to similar seeds such as soy, flex and canola.
Europe imported around 16,182 tonnes (€ 31 million) of chia seeds in 2016. This marks an average annual increase of 27% (in volume) since 2012, when imports amounted to 3,485 tonnes (€ 5.9 million).
The main European importers of chia seeds don’t just serve their domestic markets. They often function as trade hubs, re-exporting the product to other European countries. The figures relating to imports therefore differ from the actual consumption of chia seeds in various European countries.
European Union Novel Food regulation restricts the use of chia seeds in industrial applications. If legislation changes, it would mean a significant market expansion for chia seeds.
The Future The chia seed market is set to continue to rise due to the ever increasing popularity for healthy food ingredients that are gluten free, easy to transport and with a long shelf life. As chia seeds do not need to be grounded prior to use there is no issue with rancidity as is the case with its main competitor, flax. Chia seeds also has similar omega-3 content as flax seeds and it is therefore predicated that chia seeds will slowly replace the flax seed market over the next few decades.