It seems that every generation has its own superfoods. In the past, kiddies lined up for a spoonful of Saunders Malt Extract. Ovaltine was advertised as a superfood as early as 1921 and, over the years, yeast, molasses, wheat germ and, more recently, wheat grass have had their place in the spotlight. The first two decades of the 21st century saw a new focus on “ancient grains”. That’s when a forward-looking farmer began growing chia in Australia.
Strictly speaking, chia is not a grain but a seed (grains come from grasses, not leafy plants). But, like its fellow superfood quinoa, it serves as a pseudo-cereal, replacing traditional grains such as rice. Chia was a favoured food of the Aztecs, but the nutritional benefits of this high-fibre, high-protein grain weren’t discovered by modern food scientists until the 1990s.
The commercial cultivation of chia in Australia began in 2003. John Foss was a wheat farmer who came across chia when travelling the world on an agricultural scholarship. He saw the potential to align with the growing emphasis on health and well-being and, returning to Australia, identified Kununurra in the north of Western Australia as having a suitable climate and a reliable water supply from the Ord irrigation scheme. Partnering with local farmers, he founded The Chia Co., the world’s largest producer of sustainable chia seed.
The high initial hopes for the crop have been somewhat dampened over time, as cheaper imports from Latin America eroded profits. However, the company compensated by developing relationships with food manufacturers, rather than relying on sales of raw seed.
Consumer advocates, CHOICE, are happy to recommend chia seeds as part of a balanced diet, although they warn that, so far, there’s not enough research to support claims of improving cardiovascular health or aiding in weight loss. They confirm, though, that the tiny seeds are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids and important minerals including iron, phosphorus, magnesium, vitamins B1 and B3, and zinc.
Chia seeds can be eaten raw or added to other dishes. Health-conscious people throw them in their smoothies and chia pudding often turns up on trendy cafe menus. The somewhat gelatinous texture can be an acquired taste. Or an off-putting one. The seeds can also be added to baked goods such as banana bread or muffins and are increasingly being found in supermarket products such as muesli, yoghurts, snacks and even prepared meals like pasta with “beef and chia meatballs”.
While it’s unlikely that it will ever be part of mainstream diets, chia in Australia is likely here to stay. As more of us switch to vegan or vegetarian diets, this ancient grain has an established role in the modern eating scene.