SAN JOSE, Calif. (MCT) Eat your Chia Pet. Help your heart?
Some researchers think so prompting distributors of the tiny seeds used to sprout the pets' iconic frizzy green hair to tout them as the latest "superfood."
Chia seeds and related items like chips and energy bars are starting to become more widely available in the Bay Area, and a major health food chain recently started carrying them nationwide. Online retailers report rising sales. Plugs on CBS News and Oprah Winfrey's show haven't hurt, either.
Derived from a mint-related plant known as salvia hispanica and once eaten by the Aztecs, chia seeds are high in protein, fiber and calcium. Most importantly, the seeds are high in one of the omega-3 fatty acids known to help prevent heart disease. The seeds are higher in omega-3 than any other plant source, including flaxseed, which many people sprinkle on food for its health benefits.
That's why chia seeds, for decades a tiny niche product in health food stores, are drawing attention nationwide. The omega-3 supplement market, dominated by products such as fish oil and flaxseed, has grown into a $500 million-a-year business, attracting marketers not only of chia seeds but other omega-3 rich foods like cranberries and soy.
"The market for omega-3s is skyrocketing," said Rebecca Wright, editor of Nutraceuticals world, a trade magazine. "They're so popular, everyone's trying to get in on it."
The Vitamin Shoppe, a 342-store health-food chain based in New Jersey, is the first major chain to roll out chia products nationwide, including in its two San Jose stores.
"It's among our fastest-growing products," category manager Rob Maru said.
Miho Cortez of San Jose does a brisk business selling chia seeds on eBay and eats them herself, every day.
"It was very slow at the beginning, but I'm getting orders constantly now," she said.
The U.S. Food and Drug administration regulates chia as a food, and it's largely regarded as safe. An ounce of chia seeds contains 137 calories, four grams of protein and 11 grams of fiber in addition to omega-3s. However, some studies have found that very high levels of omega-3 fatty acids can interfere with blood clotting.
Chia has a storied history as the food of the Aztecs, Mayans and other Native Americans, who believed the seeds aided endurance. Because chia also forms a gelatin-like mass when soaked in water, these ancient cultures used them in poultices to heal wounds. In Mexico, people still soak the seeds in water and lime juice to make a drink called chia fresca.
Today, chia seeds, which require a warm climate, are largely grown in Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina.
Only recently, however, have researchers learned that they are high in ALA (alphalinoleic acid), a type of omega-3 fatty acid. Fish oil, in contrast, contains two different omega-3 acids, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). Flaxseeds, like chia seeds, contain ALAs.
Chia distributors are now competing with fish oil manufacturers, who contend that ALAs contained in chia and flaxseed are inferior because they first must be broken down in the body into DHA and EPA for the highest nutritional benefit. Researchers say the fish oil makers have a good point, and the FDA has allowed fish oil and other supplement makers to make heart-health claims for DHA and ELA.
Studies have shown that all three acids can help prevent heart disease. Concerns also have been raised about pesticide residues and mercury in fish oil. Few studies have been conducted on chia seeds alone, although more have used flaxseed, which contains the same type of omega-3 fatty acid as chia.
One study published last year found that among 20 diabetic patients, those who ate chia seeds for three months had lower blood pressure and lower levels of a blood protein linked to heart disease.
The limited research on chia, however, hasn't stopped its distributors from touting all kinds of health benefits, including relief from indigestion, weight loss, extra endurance and blood sugar control.
"I don't recommend it as a cure-all, but as a way to get more of what's healthy into our diets," said Sheri Zidenberg-Cherr, a Cooperative Extension specialist at the University of California-Davis Department of Nutrition. Chia seeds, she said, "deserve more study."
One stumbling block that has kept chia from becoming more popular earlier is its price: ounce for ounce, it's more expensive than flaxseed. Prices for a pound of chia seed can range from $7 to more than $20, with flaxseed often a third of the price.
Still, chia "blows off the shelves whenever there's a news report on it," added John Pereira, a manager at a Vitamin Shoppe store in San Jose. "People don't even know what it is. They just say, 'I'll pick it up.'"