Chia originated in Central America, where it has been cultivated as a food source since pre-Columbian times. Research suggests it was a food staple for many of the Mesoamerican empires, most notably the Aztecs, who used its oil in cosmetics, painting, and even offered it to their gods in religious ceremonies.
Its introduction into western culture was rather serendipitous, as it came in the form of a clay animal figurine with the accompanying catchphrase “Ch-Ch-Ch-Chia.” To this day Chia Pets are still relatively popular and have at times been accused of causing market volatility of the actual seed.
The chia plant itself is small, sits lower to the soil, and will produce numerous heads. During this flowering period, the spikelet’s you see surrounding the head will begin to grow seeds inside of them. Once the heads are filled, the plant must dry out in order to be harvested, which will occur in roughly a months’ time.
Chia prefers sandy or loamy soils and is rather drought intolerant. It’s susceptible to insect damage at the time of seeding and disease pressure at flowering. Production can be tough to judge as head filling is variable depending on conditions.
Primarily associated with the superfood claim in the food industry, chia’s nutrient profile is extraordinary, as it’s a good source of fatty acids, dietary fiber, protein, minerals, and antioxidants. To top that off, it’s a complete protein, containing all 9 of the essential amino acids that cannot be made by the body. It is most commonly consumed raw, as a whole seed, and can be manufactured into flour or processed for its oil.
Commercial production is concentrated in South America, primarily in Paraguay, Argentina, and Bolivia. Mexico is also a large producer; however, overall market prices and direction are predicated upon Paraguay and Argentina. Consumption is led by North America followed by the EU.
Growth over the past 10 years has been gradual, however, pricing has had a bumpy past. Initial popularity from 2010-2014 incentivized steady overproduction and the entrance of new suppliers, with values peaking in 2014. This resulted in drastically lower prices the following year. The move was so severe, it caused many suppliers within South America to default on contracts and even go bankrupt.
The past few years have brought more price stability, but it appears that new suppliers have been slow to re-enter. For those that survived the price volatility, and the few that re-entered, many have diversified into other crops to help manage the risk.
This blog was a team effort from the Mini-Milling and Blending Supply Chain Team.
Brenden Olson and Miles Henderson from the Bay State Milling Supply Chain team recently traveled to South America. During their supply chain outing, they provided real time updates on our social media pages. We’ve combined them all into one video so you can follow Brenden and Miles from Peru to Paraguay and Argentina. The trip focused on quinoa, chia and sesame.