Chia Seeds: Your Newest Baking Buddies

  • Chia seeds are showing up in baked goods all over.

If one ingredient is dipping its legs into baked goods more than others right now, it’s chia (Salvia hispanica). Thanks to its universally acceptable vegetarian source, ease of use, and curious gel-in-your-mouth amusement, chia has ascended to a sort of all-star status, making its way into cookies, nutrition bars, and breads. It is even sold as stand-alone seeds and powder for baking.

Why? For starters, strange as it is, that gelling quality does more than amuse. It can make chia a potential egg or fat replacer.

But rich omega-3 content is the primary reason for chia’s ascendance. Chia-fortified products frequently run omega-3 content claims, and the ingredient carries more omega-3 than flax, baking’s longtime favorite seed.

The distinction between chia and flax doesn’t stop there. In food applications, flax seed is usually milled so that humans can readily digest the seed and derive benefit from omega-3s, but thanks to chia’s permeable shell, no milling or crushing is needed. Sandra Gillot, general manager of Functional Products Trading S.A. (Santiago, Chile), further explains the process. Her company supplies Proprietary Nutritionals Inc. (Kearny, NJ) with its Benexia chia seed.

“Stomach acidity will dissolve the thin shell of the [chia] seed and let the omega-3 become absorbed,” says Gillot. “So in food applications, you need to compare a whole [chia] seed—which perfectly preserves the omega-3s inside its shell, for up to five years—with a milled flax seed, which is very unstable because once milled, the omega-3s are exposed to the air. That air can cause oxidation of essential fatty acid content.”

Without its omega-3 fame, chia would likely still be unfamiliar to U.S. and other global consumers. These customers now rely on the stability of chia harvests in Latin America—harvests that some speculate are changing.

Chia seed supplier BI Nutraceuticals (Irvine, CA) says stocks are somewhat reduced, mainly due to growing consumer popularity, and some stocks may have been affected by recent wildfires in growing regions. However, since the harvest season for chia is between June and August, better forecasts may be available in a matter of months.

Chia grows in a variety of Latin American countries, so this can alleviate potential losses. Ecuadorian Rainforest (Belleville, NJ), for example, supplies chia from Mexico, Ecuador, and Bolivia. For all intents and purposes, manufacturers may want to purchase chia from suppliers who work directly with the source and can guarantee price and availability.

Right now, the chia market is alive and well. Consumers can benefit from chia’s stocks of omega-3, fiber, protein, antioxidants, and minerals, and can seemingly purchase the stuff at any market or health food store. Committed suppliers will offer chia as whole seed, ground seed, powder (flour), and/or oil, making for a wide variety of uses in baked goods and other applications. For manufacturers seeking additional processing ease, Taura Natural Ingredients (Winchester, VA) offers chia inclusions (pictured above): ready-made chunks of pure fruit or pure vegetable with chia seeds contained. The company says these are a great fit for snacks, baked goods, breakfast cereals, and confectionery.

Rest assured, if manufacturers want chia in their products, a supplier will find a way to do it.