From animal clay shapes with sprouted seeds popular in the U.S. market during the 1980s, to superfood known by a few foodies and found at some natural health food stores in the 1990s, Chia seeds have been gaining momentum during the last five years reaching now the full spotlight throughout diverse distribution channels.

The tiny white and black seeds come from the Salvia hispanica plant and are known since Aztec times for their energizing attributes. They have more omega-3 than any other natural source and are loaded with antioxidants, calcium, protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals. Besides boosting energy, they are easily digestible and provide stamina and endurance that lasts and reduces cravings. Cereal bar manufacturers are targeting consumers who wish to move away from treats and are looking for a workout energy boost, a nutritious snack or even a fast meal replacement option.

The cereals, energy and protein bar markets have become the ideal food medium to introduce consumers to Chia seeds. They absorb up to nine times their weight in water and have high levels of soluble fiber that help release energy from natural, unrefined and complex carbohydrates slowly into the bloodstream. In contact with water or other fluids a gel is formed, which once in the stomach is believed to become a natural barrier between carbohydrates and digestive enzymes slowing down the conversion of carbohydrates into sugar. Energy spikes are eliminated and the energy is distributed more evenly. Absorbing its weight in water also extents hydration levels in the body’s cells, helping the body to better absorb nutrients. Chia is also the richest vegetable source for omega-3 fatty acid, assisting in the absorption of vitamin A, B, E and K.

‘Food Bars in the U.S’, a report released by Packaged Facts in April 2012 says food bars have been generating sound and fury in the marketplace recently, posting double-digit growth rates for successful product types in the mass market as well as the natural products channel. U.S. retail sales of cereal/granola bars and energy/nutrition bars reached $5.7 billion in 2011. Reasons for this boom include increased sophistication in marketing bars to different consumer sets and continued innovation in formulations and formats. According to David Sprinkle, publisher of Packaged Facts, "Food trends such as the blurring of meals and snacks, an emphasis on portion control, and increasingly informal, spur-of-the-moment, and customized eating all favor the food bar market."

A main trend is the blurring of distinctions between cereal/granola bars and energy/nutrition bars. Broadly speaking, cereal/granola bars are focusing more on nutrition and incorporating functional ingredients (such as added protein or fiber), while energy/nutrition bars are incorporating ever more creative and decadent formulations to make them more appetizing. In the energy/nutrition bar category, new flavor and ingredient introductions along with improvements in taste and mouth feel have made the future of these products look very bright.

Manufacturers are addressing more sophisticated concerns, such as creating products to supplement perceived nutritional deficits that might be incurred in a weight-loss program. High-protein, low-carbohydrate or balanced-gastrointestinal formulations have seen good growth. Among the functional ingredients that manufacturers are using to vary the nutrition bar formula are CoQ10, L-carnitine, omega-3, resveratrol, and vitamin K2.

In 2010, not able to find a tasty, all natural and nutritious energy bar in the market to boost their energy during a workout, NY based runners Catherine and Jason Walsh decided to develop their own cereal bar with superfoods. The properties of Chia got their attention and last year they started NY Superfoods Inc. and launched Chia Charger, an all-natural bite-sized snack loaded with Chia and five other superfoods sweetened with agave. In less than a year the line has built a base of loyal customers in both the East and West Coast. And among the many products with Chia seen this year at Expo West in Anaheim, Chia Charger was one of the 10 favorites according to the New Hope Media Editors' Choice Food & Beverage Awards and recipients of the 3rd Annual Next Big Small Brand Award, a contest for culinary genius celebrated in New York and San Francisco.“When we started the project most people had not tried Chia seeds before”, says Mrs. Walsh. “It seems that after Dr. Oz mentioned (in his TV program) the healthy properties of Chia seeds, more people went out looking for them”.

At Sial Canada this May, first time Colombian exhibitor Dipsa Food attracted the crowd with its exclusive line of energy bars and granolas made with Chia seeds, macadamia nuts, mango, golden berries and pitaya. “We are pleased with the respond of the market. It seems we got the right combination of ingredients”, said managing director Luz Marina Rojas.

Market intelligence group Mintel said in February that while sales of many consumer products have seen declines in sales due to the poor economy, this has not been the case for the nutrition and energy bar market. While not entirely recession-proof, this sector has shown itself to have staying power even in the light of continuing economic woes hitting many consumers’ wallets. Sales of nutrition and energy bars in the U.S. increased by 71% between 2006-11; total U.S. sales reached $1.7 billion in 2011.