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CHIA, A NEW SOURCE OF OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS: FROM RESEARCH TO COMMERCIALIZATION
Ricardo Ayerza
Bioresources Research Facility, The University of Arizona
Chia (Salvia hispanica L.) production and commercialization are the result of the Northwestern Argentina Regional project. The goal of the project was to identify and bring into commercial production new industrial crops which can help diversify agricultural production and increase profits for farmers in northwestern Argentina. Both private and government organizations in the USA and Argentina have been working cooperatively on this project since its inception. This technical cooperation was made possible through the Farmer to Farmer program, financed by the Congress of the USA as part of the 1990-95 Farm Bill (Public Law 480), and the USAID

Chia is a summer annual belonging to the Labiatae family. This species originated in mountainous areas extending from west-central Mexico to northern Guatemala. Pre-Columbian civilizations, mainly Aztecs, used chia as a raw material in making several medicines and nutritional compounds, and even paints. It was one of the main crops of the pre-Columbian societies of the region, and was surpassed only by corn and beans in terms of significance.

Chia seeds contain oil amounts varying between 32-39%, with the oil offering the highest natural percentage of g-linolenic fatty acid known (60-63%). Chia seeds have demonstrated a strong anti oxidizing activity. The most important antioxidants obtained are chlorogenic acid, caffeic acid and flavanol glycosides. Since oxidation is delayed, chia shows a great potential within the food industry compared to other g-linolenic acid sources. This essential fatty acid has been shown to exhibit significant importance in a great number of industrial compounds such as varnish, paints, cosmetology, etc., and in a number of functional foods, like egg, bread, and milk.

Although chia was an important grain during the pre-Columbian age, its cultivation decreased following America’s discovery. Nowadays, in its native location, this species is limited to a few hectares, and the seeds are using only to prepare a local drink called “chia fresca.”

The R&D project included determination of new production areas, and modern products and practices aimed at bringing chia to the market as a new product. Today, as a result of the project, a number of farmers grow chia in Argentina and Bolivia on a regular basis. The possibility of producing this crop in two different and distant areas (not usual for new crops) decreases climatic and political risks, and avoids concentrating the delivery season.

Contact Dr. Ayerza at Bioresources Research Facility, The University of Arizona, 250 E. Valencia Rd., Tucson, AZ 85706; E-mail: rayerza@ag.arizona.edu

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