It's big in the US and Australia and now it has arrived in the UK amid media reports of it being the new superfood, thanks to its strong nutritional profile. High in omega-3, protein, fibre, antioxidants, B vitamins and calcium, chia has been claimed to help aid weight loss, diabetes, heart disease, bone health and digestive disorders.
Marketing of the seed has been permitted in the use of bread products at up to 5% since 2009, but its application looks set to expand. In February 2012 the Food Standards Agency received an application from an Australian firm called The Chia Company to extend the seed's authorisation from bakery to include breakfast cereals and fruit, nut and seed mixes. The application has been sent to the European Commission for review and, at the time of going to press, the outcome was still pending.
So is it just the latest hyped-up superfood fad or does the chia seed have a sustainable future in the UK's ingredients market?
Despite British bakery brand Burgen adding a new Sunflower and Chia Seed bread to its range and bakery ingredients suppliers such as CSM Ingredients, Leathams and British Bakels currently investigating the nutritional properties of the seed, it's still early days and UK launches of products containing the seed remain low in numbers compared with other parts of the world. Mintel figures indicate that 51% of new products containing chia were launched in the US in 2012, compared with 22% in Latin America, 20% in Asia Pacific and 3% in Europe.
But this could change if novel foods approval is granted. Would this spark a rush of new chia-based products in Europe? Mintel's senior global food and drink analyst, Chris Brockman, thinks producers will be keen to experiment.
"There's a lot of potential for using the ingredient to raise the health profile of snack and cereal bars, which have been 22% of new [chia-based] launches globally over the last two years," said Brockman. "Chia fits with the trend for ancient grains and seeds and can upscale a product to premium status by adding a layer of differentiation."
But he warns that price and availability issues could scupper manufacturers' plans for the ingredient. "A lot depends on the price and availability of the seeds. They are very limited right now, which makes the price high."
Getting the on-pack claim right is also key to the success of a product containing chia. Brockman cites Spanish baker Bimbo's launch and subsequent withdrawal of its bread containing chia seed last year, suggesting that on-pack claims may have attributed to its demise. "They focused on bone health benefits on pack because chia is rich in calcium but the omega-3 heart health positioning is, by far, the strongest selling point."
Dr Roberta Re, nutrition research manager at Leatherhead Food Research, thinks the seed has much potential as a source of omega-3 but concurs with Brockman that its market longevity hinges on health claims.
"The nutritional benefits are easy," she says. "It's the claims part that's difficult. I don't know how much scientific evidence there is. Firms can market the seed to say what it contains but that's a different story to making a health claim."