The seeds set to be the next superfood craze
Chia, the healthy eating sensation in New York, is expected to be a hit here
Saturday 24 March 2012
Choking down wheatgrass juice or stuffing your face with acai berries is rarely an enjoyable experience, even if you are sure of the nutritional benefits.
But health-conscious Britons could soon feast on a more manageable "superfood" that is now a sensation in New York and Los Angeles.
Chia seeds, once worshipped by the Aztecs as the food of the Gods, could be allowed into products after a review by the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes – an expert panel that helps the Food Standards Agency.
That isn't to say they're dangerous. Chia is sold at Holland and Barrett at £12.05 for 400g, but it is advertised as a bread ingredient. The seeds are subject to the same legislation as all "novel" food that enters the UK. Nutritionist Patrick Holford called it "bureaucracy gone wrong".The chia plant is a member of the mint family, meaning pests tend to give it a wide berth. The seeds, which turn black or white when mature, are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, protein, minerals and antioxidants. Their soluble fibres make a gloopy mess mixed with liquid, which aids dieters (they make you feel fuller) and diabetes sufferers (they help cut blood sugar levels).
"It's not like other supposed miracle foods that come out only to be dismissed as dangerous months later," said Dr Wayne Coates, a professor at the University of Arizona. "You can add it to anything. My wife sprinkles it on our salad. It lowers cholesterol, it reduces joint pain. "
Dr Coates calls himself Mr Chia, and has been studying the plant since 1991. Since then, Australia, Bolivia and Ecuador have overtaken Mexico as the largest centres of production. Dr Coates became a supplier himself, and his Chia Bia brand supplies Holland and Barrett.
Isn't it unethical to preach about chia's benefits as an academic and sell it for profit? "If you look at how much we're making... we have to pay the bills," he said, claiming proceeds from his book sales "only make $150 (£94.50) a year."
On board with Dr Coates' message is Patrick Holford, but he warned that the category of Omega-3 oils found in chia seeds is less "potent" than those in a portion of salmon. He recommended eating the seeds alongside a piece of fruit for breakfast. Whatever the FSA decides, it is unlikely to deter ardent health fanatics from their purchase. Some claim the seeds are flavourless, others detect a nutty aroma, but few have condemned the taste – which can't be said of other superfoods. They are so innocuous that in 2011, they infiltrated 72 new products, including baby foods, yogurts and sweets.
The FSA's initial opinion on chia, thought to be largely positive, has been sent to the European Commission.
From Gwyneth's nectar to Goji: Other superfoods
Sales of agave nectar soared after the syrupy solution, from the spiky monocot plant of the same name, was plugged by actress Gwyneth Paltrow. “Your body will thank you,” she said. The British Nutrition Foundation said benefits would be less keenly felt here as we use healthier sugars than in the US.
Marketed as a health food berries are grown in Europe and Asia. Pound for pound, they have more vitamin C than oranges and more iron than steak. But a dietician said: “One berry is not going to turn your life around.”
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