First there were Chia Pets; now there are chia people.
Ubiquitous in television ads that made their debut 30 years ago, Chia Pets were called "the pottery that grows." Mixing chia seeds and water on the outside of an animal-shaped terra-cotta figurine produces a plant resembling green hair almost overnight.
Now, chia is having a second life as the latest nutritional "it" item. Whole and ground chia seeds are being added to fruit drinks, snack foods and cereals and sold on their own to be baked into cookies and sprinkled on yogurt.
Grown primarily in Mexico and Bolivia, chia is rich in the same omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, along with antioxidants, protein and fiber. Recognition of its nutritional value can be traced as far back as the Aztecs.
Companies such as Dole and Nature's Path have introduced chia products, which have begun showing up on shelves in grocery stores such as Ralphs, Vons, Albertsons and Trader Joe's. Mintel, a market research firm, counted 100 products containing chia in a presentation it did in March on the potential of increasing the use of the seeds in dairy products.
"About two years ago, our retailers came to us and said, 'We need you to be in this business everyone is talking about, the business of chia seeds,' " said Michael Hirsch, vice president of Joseph Enterprises, which sells Chia Pets and other novelty products and has now added chia seeds and milled chia called -- what else? -- Ch-Ch-Ch-Chia Omega.
Last spring, strong demand for the seeds collided with weather patterns that depressed production, raising prices and the awareness that chia had moved beyond the realm of health food stores and into the broader market.
Janie Hoffman, founder of Mamma Chia fruit juices, was one of the first people to recognize the potential of chia as a food. She was complaining about flaxseed -- "I hate how you have to grind it and then it goes rancid" -- to a friend, who asked why she wasn't using chia instead. "She said it had no taste, it's high in antioxidants, huge in omega-3, a far superior seed," Hoffman recalled. "In short, she made me feel like an idiot -- no one was using flaxseed anymore."
So she bought some chia seeds online and, almost overnight, was sold on their benefits. "I started incorporating it into everything I was eating," she said. "Stir fries, yogurt, beverages -- there really wasn't anything in my kitchen that didn't have chia in it."
In summer 2009, Hoffman developed fruit juices with chia seeds suspended in them. (Exposure to liquid gives the seeds a sticky, gelatinous coating, which is how they bond to the terra-cotta pets.)
"My first sales call a year and a half later was to Whole Foods in the southern Pacific region," she said. "I walked in to meet the buyer and presented this chia beverage and said I would like it to go into a few stores. She said, 'No, I want you in all of them' " -- about 40 stores -- "and that was that."
Within 11 months, Mamma Chia products were in Whole Foods stores across the nation, as well as in hundreds of health and natural foods stores.
"I personally think demand for it will grow for sure, though how big it will get is still a question," said Brad Bartlett, president of Dole Food Co.'s packaged foods business.
Dole chose chia as the first ingredient it would promote in its new Nutrition Plus line of products, which aim to provide a functional benefit to consumers. It won out over many other candidates, Bartlett said, because of its long history as a source of nutrition -- the Aztecs used it for a variety of purposes -- and because it does not require much processing to confer its benefits.
Hirsch, the Joseph Enterprises vice president, was less certain that chia would be a blockbuster, even though his company is adding protein bars to its line of edible chia products, which are sold in Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid and other drugstores.
He said he was concerned about the supply of chia seeds, which are harvested once a year and grown in rotation, usually with corn. Australia has recently joined Mexico and Bolivia in the chia production act with its own kind of seed that is grown somewhat differently, Hirsch said.
But it is a difficult crop to grow outside of the traditional areas, and so the market is tiny, roughly $70 million.