Recent research has shown that omega-3 fatty acids can reduce the risk for heart attacks and heart disease by decreasing blood clotting and inflammatory processes in the body. There is increasing public health support for such findings, with many governments now recommending that people consume at least one to two fish meals each week to reduce the incidence of heart disease, the leading cause of death around the world.
Chia seeds, grown for Northern Irish firm R Craig & Sons in Argentina and Peru, are intended for use in soft grain breads. Fortified bread is considered one of the best means of raising nutrient intake as it is a staple food for several European populations, including the British.
The UK bread and morning goods market is worth over £3 billion and is one of the largest sectors in the country's food industry, boosted by phenomenal growth in the sandwich market over the past 25 years. Total volume is approximately 2.9 million tonnes, and along with Germany, the UK is one of Europe's biggest industrial producers.
White bread, and white breads with added fibre, such as soft-grain, make up more than 70 per cent of UK consumption and are increasingly being marketed as functional foods, through addition of omega-3 fatty acids or soy. Allied Bakeries recently launched a soy-fortified bread for lowering cholesterol.
R Craig suggests that a 5 per cent chia content in bread would provide the recommended daily intake of omega-3, offering a more feasible source for many people than fish or supplements.
The seeds are also high in protein (21 per cent) and a rich source of B vitamins, calcium, phosphorous, potassium, zinc and copper.
Historically, chia seeds have been eaten in South America and were a major food crop of the Aztecs throughout Mexico and Guatemala, but they have not been consumed much in Europe. R Craig applied to the UK's Food Standards Agency for permission to market the ingredient under the EU's novel foods regulation and the agency's Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes (ACNFP) said yesterday that it is satisfied with evidence to support safe consumption of chia.
However it did raise concerns about allergenicity as current data is incomplete. While the company proposed to control this risk by using a precautionary statement on food labels, noting that it is not suitable for those suffering from mustard and sesame seed allergies, the committee was concerned that this could unnecessarily restrict the range of products available to allergic consumers.
The ingredient also faces import costs as Chia cannot be cultivated in Europe, requiring sub-tropical conditions to grow. But it is higher in natural antioxidants, such as chlorogenic acid, which have an advantage over alternative alpha-linoleic sources such as flaxseed in terms of stability and flavour quality, noted R Craig's application.
A study in Canada on 20 type 2 diabetes subjects found that a chia supplement significantly lowered systolic blood pressure and altered coagulation factors.
Comments on the initial opinion are needed by 20 April before the dossier is made available to member states. The ingredient could be approved after the 60-day comment period. Objections however will be referred to the European Food Safety Authority for further assessment.