Are Chia Seeds The Next Endurance Athlete Superfood?

The word “Superfood” has become quite the buzzword in recent years, not only among the nutritionist and health community, but in athletic circles. A Superfood is a food that seemingly has everything all in one bite.

Whole chia seeds
Kristin Duvall | Photographer's Choice | Getty Images
Whole chia seeds

You’ve heard them all. Pomegranates came out of nowhere. They were followed by acai and goji berries and then…the mangosteen! Each time the name seemed to get weirder and their origins more remote.

The next superfood though is a name you might know: Chia seeds.

Yep, the very same seeds that you spread over your kitchen pet are now valued as a superfood. I’m not claiming to have tested this stuff myself, but those who have say its filled with fiber, potassium and antioxidants, and it’s good for athletes of endurance sports because it holds water well.

Those who have gotten into the business, admit that eating chia seeds – usually tossed into smoothies, cereal – isn’t yet mainstream, but that doesn’t mean that the idea of eating chia isn’t spreading.

The image of the Chia Pet hasn’t helped things, but once people see what it offers, their opinion changes,” said Alan Friedman, manager of Chia Seeds Direct, a company whose best seller is a 12-pound bag that sells for $60.

Friedman says that since 2005, the company has seen double digit growth every year and the top indicator of future growth is the fact that he is getting more and more calls from growers in Mexico and Ecuador looking to switch some of their other crops out to provide more space to grow chia seeds.

The business is steady, but it’s still small enough that those that sell seeds still see a bump when someone in the mainstream press mentions it.

“We can tell when Dr. Oz mentions it on Oprah or on his show,” said Shadd McEwan, president of GetChiaLLC, who has started to produce breads, bagels and muffins with chia seeds in it.

But McEwan and Friedman’s best mention, at least for athletes looking for the next natural performance enhancer, is in the New York Times best-selling book “Born To Run” by Christopher McDougall. In the book, McDougall tells the story of the mysterious Tarahumara running tribe in Mexico. Their drink of choice is what McDougall describes as a “home brewed Red Bull.” It’s called chia fresca and the ingredients are chia seeds in water mixed with sugar and lime.

“If you had to pick just one desert island food, you couldn’t do much better than chia,” McDougall writes. “At least if you were interested in building muscle, lowering cholesterol and reducing your risk of heart disease; after a few months on the chia diet, you could probably swim home.”

McEwan — who sells everything from one pound bags to 55-pound sacks — says that he speaks with runners every day, most of them mentioning that they heard about it in “Born to Run.” He says that his biggest customers are still people who are early adopters of the next big thing and who are “actively searching” for something that isn’t necessarily in everyone’s kitchen.

And don’t think the folks at Joseph Enterprises, which make the Chia Pet, are letting this get all by them. They now have the Gourmet Chia Herb Garden, which you take from the pot on your ledge and sprinkle it into your salad.

If chia takes off, at least after reading this, you won’t laugh the next time you see it in your local food store or hear about its rise on TV.

Questions? Comments?