A staple of the pre-Columbian Mayan and Aztec diets, chia seeds are making a comeback as the latest so-called superfood.
Loaded with omega-3′s, antioxidants, fiber, calcium, protein and a number of other vitamins and minerals, chia seeds are about as nutrient-dense as you can imagine a food to be. They’re said to be able to aid with weight loss, control blood sugar and reduce the risk of heart disease, though none of these claims have been backed up by scientific evidence.
In “Born to Run,” author Christopher McDougall attests to the seeds’ ability to boost stamina and energy, describing how ancient Aztecs chomped on the seeds as they made their conquests and how the Tarahumara Indians today use the seeds to fuel long-distance runs barefoot. “Among Wall Street’s trading desks and bullpens,” Bloomberg Businessweek adds, “chia seeds are becoming the stimulant of choice” — “healthier than coffee, cheaper (and obviously more legal) than cocaine, and less juvenile than a 5-hour Energy drink.”
So the trend has set in and the craze will ensue. Whole and ground chia seeds are being added to smoothies, puddings, soups, cereals and a variety of baked goods. It was only a matter of time before they were co-opted by the food industry. Dole, according to a recent New York Times article, “chose chia as the first ingredient it would promote in its new Nutrition Plus line of products, which aim to provide a functional benefit to consumers.” The seeds have entered the broader market and can now be found in many mainstream grocery stores. Demand for chia products has grown fivefold this past year, says John Roulac, founder of Nutiva, which sells organic chia seeds.
But are chia seeds really a superfood? Are they any more “super” than the blueberries, almonds and acai berries of yesteryear? The truth of it is, as Michael P. Hirsch, vice president of the company that sells Chia Pets, said, “Everybody is looking at this because everybody is always looking for something new.”
In reality, the hype over chia seeds as a superfood isn’t about health. It’s about marketing and about marketers having found the next nutritional “it” product to peddle. Consider acai, which “became one of the fastest-growing foods in history, billed as a miracle cure for, among other things, obesity, attention-deficit disorder, autism, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, and erectile dysfunction,” as reported in the New Yorker last year. But these claims now seem farfetched, and acai has lost a lot of its luster. The fruit hovers in an “uneasy limbo,” wrote John Colapinto for the New Yorker — “not quite written off as yesterday’s news but perilously close.” It’s telling that the leading acai juice company in the U.S. hired a former Coca-Cola executive as its new marketing director to revive demand for the fruit.
In short, “superfoods” are a marketing conceit. Choosing what to eat for health entails simply choosing food that’s real and whole. In fact, I can’t think of any real food that couldn’t also be or hasn’t already been touted as a superfood — whether it’s broccoli or apples or salmon or spinach or walnuts or beans or tofu. Today it just happens to be chia seeds. They’re new, they’re exotic, they have a good back story and they’re extremely versatile. They’re a marketer’s dream.
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