By Ray Latif
No longer just for dog-shaped window plants, chia is now a rising star in the world of “superfoods” – and a fast-emerging ingredient to watch in the beverage industry.
Chia, a member of the mint family native to central and southern Mexico and Guatemala, was once revered among Aztec and Mayan cultures. The word chia itself is Mayan for “strength” and fleet-footed messengers of those cultures were purported to carry a pouch of chia seeds to sustain themselves. While in more contemporary times the fast-growing chia has come to be linked with the ubiquitous “Chia Pet,” in the past couple of years the seed of the plant has come to enjoy a strong measure of popularity among natural and health food enthusiasts.
The seed received a huge amount of attention after being mentioned by celebrity doctor, Mehmet Oz, on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Oz said that seed’s nutrition content made it an excellent as alternative to many well-known health foods. “[One chia seed muffin] has more magnesium than about 10 heads of broccoli, and it’s got as much calcium in it as a couple cups of milk,” noted Oz.
Additionally, chia provides – in equitable serving sizes –greater amounts of Omega-3, antioxidants, protein and calcium than many other “superfoods” like salmon, blueberries and soybeans. With such high nutritional value in such a tiny seed, many people credit chia with providing energy boosts, balancing blood sugar, cutting food cravings, and offering an alternative to dieting.
Yet while there are dozens of companies that sell chia seeds and chia seed oil, only two chia-based RTD beverages have been introduced to the market: Mamma Chia and Chia Vie. Each has a unique approach to chia, and though competing products, mutual goals toward education of the seed’s many benefits have created a kinship between the two.
Alongside those two, there’s another idea: that chia’s future might be as an enhancement to another beverage type rather than a standalone product. GTs Synergy Kombucha recently added a line of chia flavors, including grape and cherry. With the power of GTs consumers getting behind the ingredient, it won’t be long before chia is even more well-known. So here are the pure plays.
Launched in October of 2010, Mamma Chia was founded by Janie Hoffman, an unlikely beverage entrepreneur, though an ardent enthusiast of chia and its benefits.
“There is no doubt that once I incorporated chia into my daily diet, there was a very noticeable increase in my vitality, energy and strength,” said Hoffman. “I became so enchanted with these little seeds that I literally was adding them to everything in my kitchen and giving away little bags of chia to everyone I knew or crossed paths with. And though I fell in love with chia, I certainly did not envision …starting a beverage company,”
Prior to creating Mamma Chia, Hoffman was an organic grower of avocados and guava pineapple and had built her business with a strong focus on social responsibility. In 2009, she began to work with chia growers in Mexico and Central and South America to attain organic certification and establish justice and equality programs.
“But I began to realize that the best way to support and assist the growers was to create an outlet for their product,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman started testing ways to infuse chia into beverages on a commercial scale though found that her homemade kitchen recipes did not translate well in production. “We had one disastrous pilot run after another and were told over and over again that it was impossible to keep the natural gel surrounding the chia seed intact during the processing,” Hoffman said.
However, Hoffman believed strongly in having whole seeds in her beverage and after months of trials was finally able to create a scalable product that includes whole chia seeds, organic fruit juices and organic agave nectar.
“I intuitively knew that if we could pull off keeping the seeds whole …Mamma Chia’s unique and enjoyable drinking experience had the potential to make a meaningful and innovative contribution to the beverage industry,” Hoffman said.
Also of great importance to Hoffman was having a message of social responsibility attached to Mamma Chia. The company is a member of 1% For the Planet and was a founding member of Slow Money, a group that donates 1 percent of gross sales to support local food systems.
“Along with a high quality organic product, part of the DNA of the company is our social mission,” Hoffman stated. “We have ‘the whole package’, and been very well received in the natural foods channel. They get it.”
Indeed they must. With her unique beverage and socially conscious views, Hoffman found distribution for her product almost immediately. From her very first meeting with Whole Foods, Mamma Chia was enthusiastically received and quickly picked up by all 37 locations in the San Diego/Southern Pacific region. Hoffman simultaneously signed a distribution agreement with UNFI and soon found its way into several other natural retailers and co-ops, including Jimbo’s and Sprouts.
“We are now distributed through UNFI and Nature’s Best and currently can be found on the West Coast and in the Southwest,” Hoffman noted. “Mamma Chia will be on the East Coast this summer and [we’re] planning to be national by the end of the year.”
The early success and first mover advantage of Mamma Chia has not gone unnoticed as the company has attracted some big name investors and advisors from the beverage world including Seth Goldman of Honest Tea and Guayaki yerba mate co-founder Chris Mann.
“They’re two of the best entrepreneurs within the natural foods channel and have great experience working with organic farms,” Hoffman said. “We’re always looking to build relations that will help Mamma Chia to grow in a sustainable and scalable way within the natural foods category.”
Additionally, Hoffman stated that her company would also look to build the Mamma Chia brand by educating everyday consumers about the benefits of chia and was enthusiastic about the role played by traditional media outlets.
“The good news is that the mass media is doing most of the educating about the benefits of chia for us,” Hoffman said. “Every day there seems to be great new articles appearing and other media coverage singing the praises of chia, and we are benefiting from incredible word of mouth phenomenon. “
“And as our vision for Mamma Chia,” Hoffman continued, “is to set the standard for the highest quality chia-based foods and beverages and be a leader in the category, and we hope that in the future, when people think of chia, they think of Mamma Chia.”
Chia\Vie is a chia seed infused beverage developed by new Bare Nutrition, a new health-focused CPG company based out of Salinas, CA.
“The popularity of Chia seeds has been growing among people with healthy and active lifestyles, but no one had come up with a chia beverage that was commercial and marketable,” said Mark Reith, a co-founder of Bare Nutrition. “So when we had the idea to create a new chia beverage, we had three requirements. We wanted a product that had the benefits of both chia and fruit; did not need to be refrigerated; and packaged in a container that was non-glass.”
But in creating the beverage, there were several significant challenges particularly in working with the chia seed itself.
“When you mix chia and water, you tend to get a gel-like texture, and for the type of seed we were using, there were very specific requirements we had to give to the manufacturer [to avoid that from happening],” Reith said. “Also we found that many people weren’t thrilled with whole seeds in traditional chia beverages, so we decided to grind up the seeds pretty small and did so in a way that, while still having all of the benefits of chia, you couldn’t detect the chia [flavor] itself.
After a year in development and “hundreds and hundreds of iterations”, Chia\Vie debuted at the 2011 Natural Foods Expo West. The beverage is a shelf stable fruit smoothie made with ground chia seed and packaged in an aluminum bottle. It will come in 3 flavors with fruit-centric names: Banappleberry, Mango-J, and Pina Acerola.
While Reith said that he was pleasantly pleased at how many people were familiar with chia at Expo West, he acknowledged that widespread education would be more difficult. In a welcoming nod to competition, he noted that as more chia products come to market, consumers will have greater exposure to the benefits of chia and bring greater light to the entire category.
“There are a number of chia products out there and people have different uses for each of them. At Expo West, we talked a lot to Janie [Hoffman] from Mamma Chia and have a high respect for her product. We actually use it quite often; however there is a very big difference between our products in terms of functionality and flavor profile. And even though we have different approaches to [using] chia, we hope [having her product on the market] boosts our sales, and we do the same for her.”