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The European market potential for chia seeds

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Nutritional and health properties have made chia seeds popular in Europe, giving it excellent marketing value and a good fit in many special diets. However, it is still a niche ingredient and high risk in terms of fluctuating availability and profit margins. Most direct import is made by German and Dutch traders. New product launches and innovation throughout Europe are necessary to secure its future growth.

1. Product description

Chia (Salvia hispanica) is a plant native to Southern Mexico and Guatemala. Its seeds are speckled blackish-brown and white, have a faint nutty aroma and a crunchy texture. The black-brown seeds are dominant, but with careful selection it is also possible to cultivate only white seeds.

Chia seeds do not grow in Europe. They are primarily produced in Latin America and Australia. There is emerging production in some African countries as well, such as Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. Chia seeds are all generally the same, with the exception of those from Nicaragua, where the cultivated seeds are smaller and blacker than in other parts of the world.

Chia seeds are oilseeds rich in omega-3 fatty acids, protein and fibre. They can be used as seeds or processed into crushed seeds, oil, as well as defatted flour or extracted protein. Chia is considered a novel food and can only be marketed as a foodstuff according to the existing authorisations (see table 1). The earlier recommendation of the European Commission of a maximum daily consumption of 15 g has been removed from the regulation.

You can find chia seeds used in Europe as:

  • an ingredient in food in pastry, bread products, yoghurts, fruit jellies and dressings
  • a nutritional supplement
  • a base for beverages

Table 1: Summary of authorised use of chia seeds and products thereof (updated for November 2020)

Authorised novel food

Conditions under which the novel food may be used

Specified food category

Maximum levels

Chia seeds

Bread products

5 % whole or ground seeds

Baked products and Breakfast cereals

10 % whole seeds

Sterilised ready-to-eat meals

5 % whole seeds

Fruit, nut and seed mixes, pre-packed chia, dairy products, confectionery (no chewing gum), edible ice, fruit and vegetables products, non-alcoholic beverages, puddings (without heat treatment at or above 120 °C)

no limitation

Chia oil

Fats and oils

10 %

Pure chia oil and chia oil in food supplements

2 g per day

High-protein partially defatted chia

Fermented milk products: unflavoured and non-heated or heat-treated after fermentation, and flavoured incl. heat-treatment

0,7 %

Confectionery

10 %

Fruit or vegetable juices and nectars

2,5 %

Flavoured drinks

3 %

Food supplements (not for infants and young children)

7,5 g/day

High-fibre partially defatted chia

Fruit or vegetable juices

2,5 %

Fruit or vegetable nectars and flavoured drinks, and Confectionery

4 %

Food supplements (not for infants and young children)

12 g/day

Source: Regulation (EU) 2017/2470, Regulation (EU) 2020/24, Regulation (EU) 2020/500, for a complete overview see the CBI study on Entering the European market for chia seeds.

Important: Extended uses for chia in heated products are currently not approved due to concerns of acrylamide. The use for chia in heated products (>120 degrees Celsius) will likely be re-assessed, which can have consequences for the use of chia in, for example, bakery products. The last scientific opinion on the Safety of chia seeds subject to thermal Processing was formulated in September 2020,

It is difficult to obtain accurate market statistics on chia seeds. There is no specific Harmonised System (HS) or other code applicable to chia seeds. The European product code HS 12079996 for ‘other oilseeds’ proves to be relatively reliable for imports from the main chia producing countries.

2. What makes Europe an interesting market for chia?

Chia consumption has increased significantly after its introduction in Europe. Although the hype has passed and the market has stabilised, Europe still has an enormous potential in food innovation, which can help further develop the market for chia.

Chia trade back to normal after booming introduction

The European market opened up for chia seeds after they were authorised to be marketed in Europe in 2009 with an extension of use in 2013. The initial global hype resulted in an enormous oversupply, forcing larger quantities of chia onto international markets and making the initial high returns disappear. From now on, expect the chia market to follow a steadier development, meaning you must be prepared to comply with higher standards and more competitive prices.

The current chia market

Imports of chia from the known production countries quickly increased from an estimated 3.4 thousand tonnes in 2013 to a peak of 19.2 thousand tonnes in 2017. The surplus production in 2014 resulted in a build-up of stocks, both in origin and in destination markets. As a result, trade prices dropped and have been relatively stable since 2015. In trade statistics, European imports of chia seem to have decreased slightly over the last two years to 17.4 thousand tonnes in 2019. However, import data 2019 may not yet be complete.

The chia buzz may be over, but according to active chia buyers, the forecast is still positive. However, there are also several companies in Europe that stepped out of the chia business due to the many problems in sourcing quality chia and the difficulty in finding a stable market. Another possible reason for the lower import volume is the continuing influence of droughts on South American agriculture, especially in Bolivia.

Future potential

Chia is a relatively new ingredient in Europe, so you can expect the consumption to increase over time. Many professionals dealing with chia have tried to quantify the potential of chia, but there is no single truth to it.

When comparing chia to other trendy products or nutritious seeds, there is still room for growth. For example, quinoa has reached 28 thousand tonnes of imports into Europe in 2019, and linseeds (a much cheaper bulk product but with similar characteristics as chia seeds) had an import volume of 715 thousand tonnes. The true potential of chia in Europe will depend on its applicability and the marketing efforts of food brands. For example, food applications for quinoa are more extensive and yield higher consumption volumes than for chia. Linseed in turn is cheap enough to be applied outside the food industry, such as in paint and linoleum.

Although the current price level is not likely to encourage overproduction, you must be careful when planning to supply to the European market. After the volatile market development of the first years, you can expect buyers to be selective when it comes to new suppliers.

Figure 1: Indicative chia imports to Europe from the main producing and supplying countries, Paraguay, Bolivia, Argentina, Peru, Mexico, Uganda, Chile, Australia

Indicative chia imports

Source: Eurostat, Market Access Database

Tip:

  • Make sure you have buyers before encouraging farmers to produce. There is a growing market for chia, but it remains a niche so you must avoid production without having a market for it.

Interest in chia as ingredient fosters future opportunities in food industry

Europe has significant power in food innovation. This will be necessary for chia to become fully adopted in different food applications. You can expect to see chia in healthy food concepts as well as sports nutrition, but you can also experiment yourself with innovative uses for chia seeds.

According to FoodDrinkEurope, Europe's food and drink industry employs 4.8 million people and adds €266 billion in value to a total turnover of €1.2 trillion, making it the largest manufacturing industry in Europe. A large number of small and medium-sized enterprises play an important role in the application of new, healthy food ingredients, such as chia. But introducing new food ideas into Europe is not easy. Market entry for non-European product developers will be very challenging.

The most positive recent development in 2020 has been the significant expansion of the authorised uses of chia as a novel food. The European Commission has taken away the limitation of use in many products and authorised the use of defatted chia flour (see product description above). Applications for new uses are a good sign of interest in chia seed and a developing demand. Relaxing the limitation of use will provide much more potential for chia seeds to be used in new food concepts.

Tip:

  • Keep yourself up to date on the new authorised uses for chia. You can find all novel foods including chia and their permitted uses as a food in the Novel Food Catalogue.

Chia is a plant-based alternative source of omega-3

Chia is an excellent plant-based source of omega-3 fatty acids. The growing market of European consumers focusing on healthy diets and people looking for vegan or vegetarian alternative sources of omega-3 are potential chia consumers. When you want to join this market, it is important to keep a close eye on the developments in vegan supplements and other specific market segments.

The traditional source of omega-3 EPA and DHA fatty acids is fish oil, but for people who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, chia oil will be a good alternative. Chia oil contains 63% to 64% of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) omega-3, which can be converted by the body to EPA and DHA. In Europe, approximately 65% of the population do not get enough EPA and DHA and do not realise it. Chia oil (ALA) can partly fulfil this need as well, especially for vegans. In the European Commission’s Nutrition and Health Claims database, omega-3 fatty ALA is in the list of authorised claims for ‘contributing to the maintenance of normal blood cholesterol levels’.

Transparency Market Research calculated a global market value for fish-free omega-3 ingredients of USD 590 million and a record growth of 9% in 2019. Europe is one of the main markets for these ingredients and around 45% is sold by the dietary supplements industry. The demand for omega-3 fatty acids will increase over the next years in dietary supplements and functional foods, infant formulas and pharmaceuticals.

Tips:

3. Which European countries offer most opportunities for chia seeds?

The countries with the largest import from non-European suppliers are Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy and Denmark. There is no trade data available for Denmark, but Germany and the Netherlands share the first place in largest import volumes. Germany is the main consumption market and the Netherlands, the main trade hub. Upcoming markets include Poland, Austria and France.

Germany: the largest European end market for chia seeds

Germany offers the largest European end market for chia seeds. With over 83 million potential consumers and a strong focus on natural and healthy food ingredients, Germany imported approximately 6.6 thousand tonnes of chia seeds from producing countries in 2019. Possibly another few thousand tonnes were imported through traders in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Denmark. Paraguay currently dominates the direct supply to Germany with a market share of 35%. Mexico, Bolivia and Uganda each supplied between 1.1 and 1.2 thousand tonnes.

According to Germany Trade & Invest (GTAI) an ageing population is fuelling the demand for health and wellness as well as functional food products to prevent or overcome conditions including diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol. Two-thirds of all Germans see a direct link between nutrition and health. Chia seeds fit very well in their modern-day diet, which includes growing preference for organic certified products.

You can find chia for sale in retail packages from brands such as Davert and Naduria, but also as an ingredient used in bakery. Baked goods are the third largest segment within the German food and beverage industry.

Quality and food safety requirements are your biggest challenges in supplying to the German market. It is one of the strictest countries in terms of pesticide residues and verification of organic certificates. You must be well prepared and understand the mentality of German buyers. Germany is expected to remain the largest destination country for chia seeds, but a potential lack of chia seed that meets the quality and safety requirements can significantly affect the demand.

Tip:

  • Come prepared when supplying to German clients and prioritise food safety. This includes a traceable and transparent supply chain with independent sampling, counter-samples, documentation, product specifications and preferably pre-tested chia on pesticide residues using European or German laboratories or the same lab as your buyer’s.

The Netherlands: best place to find traders

The Netherlands is a typical trade country where a large share of chia seeds enter the EU single market. It is an excellent place to find trading companies or set up your distribution or warehouse. But trade activities also helped develop the local consumption of chia seeds, which you can try to tap into.

The Netherlands has started to play an important role in the distribution of chia seeds. The country hosts a number of large buyers, but also several overseas supplying companies have chia on stock with Dutch logistical service providers. As trade increased, chia also became a common product in Dutch retail. Most Dutch supermarkets have chia for sale, even as private label products in supermarket chains such as Albert Heijn and Jumbo.

The Netherlands is Europe’s second-largest direct importer of chia with at least 4.3 thousand tonnes in 2019. The volume is likely around one thousand tonnes higher because the latest import data from Bolivia and Chile is lacking. The import volume from Paraguay was around 1.7 thousand tonnes and from Mexico 1.2 thousand tonnes.

In the European trade, Dutch companies have to be flexible, so established supplier relations are valued by their commercial assortment and compliance with different end market requirements. The import growth in the next years will depend on the development of chia in Europe in general.

Tip:

  • Include the Netherlands in your export strategy. You can use it as a commercial starting point to enter the European market or as a logistical hub and use warehousing and transport services in the port region of Rotterdam.

United Kingdom: opportunities for product diversification

What makes the UK interesting for chia seeds? The United Kingdom is a well-developed market when it comes to product development and convenience products. Their high acceptance for new products provides opportunities for chia seeds, as well as products that use chia as an ingredient.

The United Kingdom has many international trade relations and you can find a number of chia-related companies and brands. Direct imports of chia from origin are common: Bolivia, Paraguay, Mexico and Peru all export several hundred tonnes of chia seeds to the United Kingdom. Together with Germany, Denmark, Spain and the Netherlands, the UK is also an early adopter of chia seeds and the import from chia producing countries reached 1.9 thousand tonnes in 2019.

The United Kingdom offers a good market for new ingredients used in well marketed brands and convenience products. A foreign brand that has had success in the United Kingdom is The Chia Co from Australia with chia pods and packaged chia seeds displayed in Tesco supermarkets. But retailers Waitrose and Holland & Barrett also have an ample selection of chia products, such as gluten-free wraps and a chia-blueberry mix. This product diversification increases sales of chia seeds.

New product development and reformulation are core activities of innovation in the British food sector. However, the Brexit process (Britain’s exit out of the European Union) is has caused price inflation that could affect the sales of high-end ingredients. This makes it a challenge for chia exporters to find new opportunities in the next few years. On the other hand, it could also be a motive for British buyers to source chia directly from origin instead of buying through European traders. In the end, the United Kingdom’s drive for product development will keep a strong demand for special ingredients.

Tip:

Spain: the Latin American connection

Spain has a strong trade connection with Latin America. If your mother language is Spanish, you will find it easier to do business without a language barrier. Spanish buyers’ requirements tend to be less stringent than in northern European countries.

According to statistics, Spain has been a relatively large market for chia seeds since the beginning of its growth. Spanish companies such as Primaria were among the first to have chia authorised for import as a foodstuff. With 2.3 thousand tonnes of chia imports in 2019, Spain belongs among the main importers of chia. Peru seems to have claimed most of the chia trade with Spain. Peru is not actually one of the largest producers of chia, but a large part of its business consists of re-exporting chia from other South American countries.

While the Netherlands offers an advanced logistical hub, Spain is often an easy choice for Latin American chia companies. For them, it is relatively easy to set up business speaking Spanish. For example, the Cartago Group from Argentina has commercial activities and local presence in Spain. As a non-Latin American exporter, Spain may not be your first choice, as competition from Latin America will be strong.

Italy: introducing chia in a traditional market

Food is an important part of the Italian consumer’s life, especially when it concerns the local traditional cuisine. New ingredients, such as chia, take longer to gain traction. Nevertheless, the characteristics of chia can be a healthy addition to the oil and protein-rich Italian food.

Although Italy is a rather traditional country when it comes to food, there is some acceptance of chia. It follows the consumption trends in the main importing countries in Europe.

The introduction of chia to Italy was facilitated by Peruvian trade promotion efforts. Chia and other Peruvian products were being distributed to the Alí & Alíper supermarkets by Almaverde Bio in 2016. In addition, large international food companies, such as Pedon, added chia to their portfolios. Today, Paraguay, Argentina and Bolivia are Italy’s main suppliers, an indication that purchases take place more directly in larger producing countries.

Italy is the fourth-largest country in population in Europe, and Italian consumers are sensitive to new healthy ingredients such as gluten-free foods. Estimates suggest that approximately 600 thousand Italians suffer from coeliac disease. Chia can contribute to a healthier and gluten-free diet, because it contains gluten-free protein and essential fatty acids. Chia can be used in gluten-free pastas, bread, pizzas and all kinds of other traditional Italian food. That is why you can expect interest in chia to increase gradually in Italy in the years to come.

When orienting yourself in the Italian market, look for innovating food brands besides the regular importers of seeds, grains and pulses.

Tip:

  • Find potential food innovators that could use chia in their products at the trade fair or in the exhibitor catalogue of Tuttofood.

Denmark: chia pioneer and gateway to Scandinavia

Denmark lacks import data, but it is an important trade country for chia seeds. It can be your export country of choice if your target countries include the Nordic countries and Germany.

Danish early adopters were one of the first chia importers in Europe. They founded the company House of Originals (formerly known as Original Chia), actively promoting chia as a core product as well as an ingredient in processed products. You should not be surprised if Denmark adds another one or two thousand tonnes of chia to the European market, on top of the other main importing countries.

Although chia is well promoted in Denmark, it is a small country of 5.8 million people and the number of importers is very limited. Nevertheless, Scandinavia is a relatively wealthy region and Denmark can be an interesting starting point to supply to other nearby countries, such as Sweden, Norway as well as Germany. The largest organic wholesaler in Scandinavia, Urtekram, has embraced chia and has active sales throughout the region.

If you want to find more local information and chia products in Denmark, use the term chiafrø, which means chia seeds in Danish and in Norwegian.

Up-and-coming markets: Poland and France

Besides the countries where chia has already been developed, there are other up-and-coming markets in Europe. Poland, France and Austria are European countries showing signs of increasing chia consumption and direct supply from producing countries. Poland and France have already caught up with the Italian market.

Poland is not a frontrunner for new exotic ingredients, but Polish consumers definitely look to the food trends in neighbouring countries. In Poland, chia seeds are considered a luxury health ingredient. Chia consumption is increasing among the trendy and wealthy consumers. The price conscious consumer finds a good alternative in linseeds, which are well known in Poland and growing faster in import volume than chia seeds.

It has taken the French market some time to get chia sales going, and they still lag far behind the first adopters. From a European country as big as France, you can expect they will catch up in the following years, but this development is still slow. Nevertheless, there are chia cultivation initiative in France, which could help consumers to start eating more chia products.

The interest in healthy ingredients and product development with chia as an ingredient are important trends for the future growth of the chia market in Europe. When looking to participate in the chia trade, you can find opportunities with innovative food brands, although the novel food legislation will continue to restrict its applicability in specific product segments.

Increased focus on healthy lifestyles is good for chia sales

An increasing number of European consumers are looking for a healthier diet. For chia, this is a positive development, because it is rich in fibre, omega-3, calcium and iron. It is still a niche product, but the attention that chia has received from large retailers indicates that it is there to stay. As an exporter, you must take into account that the health food segment often requires organic certified chia.

A large quantity of organic chia is being sold in Europe, which is an important segment, but not without risks. The main South American suppliers produce chia on a large scale and in a sub-tropical region, which greatly complicates organic cultivation. Although a large amount of chia is sold as organic, there are still regular problems with pesticide residues.

Despite the issues, large European retailers have embraced products with chia and many European supermarkets have a section for special nutrition where you can find pre-packaged chia. As long as chia is being recognised for its health benefits, it will continue to have marketing value in Europe and European consumers will continue to buy chia or products that contain chia. The relaxation of the novel food restrictions and recommended maximum daily consumption will further widen the applicability of chia.

The health food segment is crucial for chia seeds, but they will remain a niche product. As an exporter it makes sense to have more similar ingredients in your portfolio as well as organic certified chia.

Tips:

  • Promote the various applications and nutritional properties of chia seeds, for example the omega-3 fatty acids, fibres and protein content. However, avoid health or nutritional claims which are not substantiated by scientific evidence. Check the EU Register of Nutrition and Health claims to find out what health and nutrition claims are permitted and under what conditions you can use them.
  • Meet with buyers of organic chia at Biofach, the largest organic trade fair in Europe.

Growing free-from market offers opportunities for chia

Chia may have a market among the growing number of European consumers who avoid specific food or allergenic substances, as well as those that follow specific diets. Chia is free from gluten and it can replace dairy and soy protein. Chia is also vegan and paleo-friendly. To maintain this special status, you must pay close attention to the processing of chia seeds to avoid cross-contamination.

Image 1: Chia is ideal for porridge free-from lactose and gluten

Chia is ideal for porridge free-from lactose and gluten

Source: Pixabay

Food bloggers and organisations promote chia in the free-from segment. For example:

  • the Celiac Disease Foundation has identified chia as a gluten-free ingredient. Brands that specialise in gluten-free products, such as Orgran, exploit this opportunity with products such as chia crispibread.
  • The Rise Of The Vegan website has compared chia as a vegan and more nutritious replacement for chicken eggs.
  • Examples of recipes where chia is used in breakfast or desserts instead of a dairy product are shared on the internet (see image 1).

All this contributes to people learning to use chia as an alternative ingredient in their special diets.

When looking into chia consumption in the free-from segment, you will find Germany and the United Kingdom to be interesting markets for chia. The demand for chia as a gluten-free superfood stretches from the United Kingdom and Germany to Italy and Scandinavian countries, where it has the highest sales value per capita.

Specific markets like these should not be underestimated. The primary processing of chia seeds after harvest must be done by a clean processing plant, without traces of soybean, or allergenic substances, such as sesame or gluten.

Tips:

Product development with chia continues from sports nutrition to convenience

Since its authorisation as a novel food in the European Union, chia has been used in many different ways and companies continue to launch new products with chia. New uses for chia are a positive indication that food brands remain interested in working with chia. The more these professional get involved with chia, the greater and more diverse your target market will become.

Product development and innovation are important for the future growth of chia. For food companies, chia is an interesting marketing tool due to its nutritional profile, but in products it is often used in very small quantities. To reach larger volumes, chia needs to become part of many new or reformulated products. Innovations can also help to make chia more accessible to consumers and easier to consume. With this in mind, food brands focus on convenience or specific target markets, such as the sports nutrition market.

How is chia used in product development and made available to consumers?

The increasing number of uses and mixes considered safe by the European Food Safety Authority allows for companies to become more creative with chia. For example, chia is used in combination with nuts and fruit:

Convenient, instant or ready-made chia products and snacks make it easy for people to consume chia. Convenience is especially well developed in northern Europe, such as the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, but other European markets are also open to healthy snacks:

One of the increasing uses for chia seeds is in sports nutrition, such as in protein bars. In the European sports nutrition market, valued at €1.9 billion in 2016, the United Kingdom had the biggest share at a value of €788 million. The second-largest market, Germany, sit far behind at €260 million. Examples of chia use in sports nutrition include:

Thanks to the expanding market, not only specialty brands use chia as an ingredient but also mainstream and multinational brands have adopted chia in some of their products. These large brand companies include, for example, Nestlé, Danone and Kellogg’s. Their product development shows the potential for chia as a mainstream ingredient:

How can you participate in product innovation?

With the right resources you can develop your own consumer product, in the same way that Australian chia farmer John Foss has done with his company The Chia Co. However, building your own chia brand in Europe will take a large marketing budget, not to mention a local presence in Europe.

Another option is to focus on innovative processing and semi-processed chia such as chia oil and milled chia. This way you can make chia a more suitable and interesting ingredient for food developers in Europe.

One of the more innovative companies in this field is Benexia, which operates from Chile and produces chia in Bolivia and Argentina. Benexia has not only created its own consumer brand of SOW oil, pastas and powders, but also produces fibre and protein concentrated powders and chia oil for the food industry. In its processing, Benexia uses advanced sterilisation technology to reduce moisture and microbiological contaminants in chia.

If you are planning to work with new extracted ingredients, such as separating protein from chia, or find a new use for chia seeds, you will need authorisation from the European Food Safety Authority to introduce these products in the European food channels.

Today there are many applications for chia allowed by the European novel food legislation. In the future, chia will lose its novel food status and further develop into a mainstream ingredient. More consumers will get to know the ingredient, although it is expected to remain a niche product.

Tips:

  • Learn how to apply for new uses of chia in the technical guidance report on the submission of applications for authorisation of a novel food in the European Union. For very innovative uses or sub-products of chia, you will have to provide relevant data and research about their safety.
  • Find out what trends will influence the demand of grains, pulses and oilseeds in the CBI trends study.

This study has been carried out on behalf of CBI by ICI Business.

Please review our market information disclaimer.

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