Bakers Journal

Chia and the modern diet

August 14, 2013
By Michael Chernyak

Since the Paleolithic era (and because the time period under
consideration is only a few thousand years), humanity has evolved thanks
to environmental and developmental changes rather than genetic

Since the Paleolithic era (and because the time period under consideration is only a few thousand years), humanity has evolved thanks to environmental and developmental changes rather than genetic modification. The evolving human interacts with the same genome as the hunter-gatherer did.

Over the last 200 years of industrial revolution and modernization, a major change has occurred in the human diet: essential fats and antioxidant vitamins and minerals have been manipulated. Essential fats are those that cannot be produced or exchanged within the human body; they must be extracted from food and are involved in human gene expression and overall homeostasis. There are two types: omega-6 (ω6) and omega-3 (ω3). These two types compete against each other in human, fatty-acid, biological pathways. It is interesting to evaluate and test the most probable dietary ratios that existed between the two types of essential and conditionally essential fatty acids at the inception of our ancestor’s genome, for there is no obvious reason for a necessary change since then.

Wild animals, plants, and fruits were the major food sources available to our hunter-gatherer Paleolithic ancestors. Hunting is still practiced as a sport in some parts of the world, and contemporary scientists have measured the ω6:ω3 ratio that persists in untamed land environments such as the African Savannah. They discovered that adipose fats, which account for ±95 per cent of total fat in land-based animals, differ from species to species by their respective content in essential fatty acids (34 per cent in monogastric pig versus 8.5 per cent in ruminant antelope), but that their essential ω6:ω3 ratio consistently nears equilibrium [1,2].

During human evolution, modern cereals and grains were scarce, and the food available to pre-agricultural humans was essentially wild and lean (meat, fish, leafy greens and plants, fruits, nuts, berries) and loaded with antioxidant vitamins and minerals. Under such environmental conditions, it is generally estimated that the white adipose tissue of wild animals and game accounted for the major source of land-based dietary lipids and that the average ω6:ω3 ratio in
that land-based diet was therefore
close to 1:1 [3,4].

Agribusiness (grain and cereal production) and food technology (fat and oil extraction) have dramatically changed the pattern of nutrients and lifestyles in the human regimen. Energy-dense, fat-rich foods and sedentary lifestyles have become standard. However, all things remaining equal in terms of essential principles (for example, energy intake equals energy expenditure, and taking into account proportionality, moderation and variety), modernization has induced a single dramatic change
in the way essential nutrients are distributed [5].

Basically, modern foods are loaded with omega-6 fats, but are moderately to largely deficient in omega-3 fats, antioxidant vitamins, and minerals. It has been estimated that the modern Western diet contains omega-3 to omega-6 essential fatty acids with a ratio ranging from 20:1 to 10:1, instead of 1:1 as it did in the Paleolithic diet [3].

The problem is that our genetic structure was not programmed to deal with ingestion of large amounts of omega-6 (when compared to omega-3). Today’s imbalance is partially being held responsible for what are called “modern chronic diseases” because we have too much pro-inflammatory omega-6 and too little anti-inflammatory omega-3 in our tissues. Chronic degenerative diseases such as cardio, cerebral and retinal vascular conditions, brain and autoimmune diseases, cancer, obesity, diabetes and bone loss have all been shown to have a strong inflammatory component.

Omega-3 belongs to a group of three fatty acids: docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and a-Linolenic acid (ALA). Chronologically, the studies on the health benefits alone or together with EPA preceded the interest in the potential beneficial effects of ALA. Recently, there has been an increased interest in this topic as we expand our understanding of ALA metabolism. First, ALA could be beneficial by simply acting as the precursor of EPA and DHA. As demonstrated, an increase of ALA consumption elevates tissue ALA, EPA and a fourth fatty acid docosapentaenoic acid DPA omega-3 content and, in some cases, DHA. Second, because ALA competes for the same metabolic enzymes as linoleic acid (LA), it interferes with the conversion of LA to AA (arachidonic acid), acting as a ‘nutritional brake’ to block further synthesis of AA to its pro‐inflammatory eicosanoids. In doing so, ALA dampens inflammation by blocking the formation of the compounds that promote it. ALA may produce a benefit by its direct interaction with ion channels or nuclear receptors. Thus, similar to EPA and DHA, ALA may have numerous beneficial effects to promote human health.

In the end, based upon kinetic evidence, dietary studies with ALA, and human studies, the conversion of ALA to DHA by the liver and other specific DHA requiring tissues such as the brain, will provide ample DHA when sufficient ALA (>1200 mg/day) is consumed.

Mankind is growing – the world’s population is increasing, and is becoming increasingly aware of the huge requirements for omega-3s and the health problems resulting from its deficit in human nutrition. Well-acknowledged international health organizations are aware that supplementing fish oil in the human diet cannot solve the omega-3 shortage in the modern food industry. A study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal criticized the promotion of fish oil as a healthy food option because fish supply is under the threat of over-exploitation, which is really the case. Identification of supply alternatives and solutions, as well as political changes, will be required to solve the omega-3 supply shortage issue. In this scenario, plant-based ALA sources play a vital role for a future consistent and sustainable omega-3 supply. 

Enter chia.  The original energy food of the Aztecs, chia seed has been available to North Americans for some time now but only achieved mainstream awareness when celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz featured it as one of the five supplements that you need as you age. Exceptionally rich in highly stable and bioavailable omega-3 fatty acids (63 per cent of total fatty acids are omega-3 essential fatty acids, contributing 20 grams of ALA per 100 grams of seed), chia is also an excellent source of antioxidants, fiber, vitamins B1, B2, B3, plus minerals such as phosphorus, calcium, potassium, iron, zinc and copper.  So compelling are the health benefits and uses of chia that it recorded in excess of 350 per cent growth last year in the U.S., making it the top ingredient among all natural products, according to leading market researcher SPINS.

Innovations in the way chia is made available as a bulk ingredient have paved the way for launches in dairy, beverage, sauces, dressings and numerous other food categories.  Bakery products, however, remain the foundation for chia uses and applications.  Whether chia is in the form of a seed, oil or bran, it can be effortlessly added to breads, bagels, muffins, cookies, cakes and other fresh and frozen baked goods to deliver wholesome omega-3 fats and other important macro and micronutrients.

Not all material is alike.  When selecting quality chia, it’s important to evaluate a number of factors including product purity, traceability, growing and manufacturing certifications/accreditations, and stability in both supply and pricing.  It’s your name on your product and taking the necessary steps to select a reputable vendor will go a long way toward strengthening your brand and your reputation as a bakery products supplier.

Michael Chernyak is President & CEO of CK Ingredients, a Toronto-based supplier of innovative functional and nutritional ingredients to the Canadian food, beverage and natural health products industry. Michael has been involved in the Canadian food and natural health products industry for seventeen years, and that I’ve contributed to various industry publications including Nutraceuticals World, Functional Ingredients Magazine and the Nutrition Business Journal. CK Ingredients offers a stable supply of chia seed, chia oil and chia bran from the world’s largest and most reputable grower.  Visit or e-mail for further details.


  1. Fincham JE,Woodroof CW, van Wyk MJ, et al. Promotion and regression of atherosclerosis in Vervet monkeys by diets realistic for Westernized people. Atherosclerosis; 66:205–230.
  2. Parks JS, Lehner NDM, St Clair RW, Lofland HB. Whole-body cholesterol metabolism in cholesterol-fed African green monkeys with a variable hypercholesterolaemic response. J Lab Clin Med; 90:1021–1034.
  3. Hayes KC. Diet and atherosclerosis. In: KC Hayes, ed. Primates in Nutritional Research, New York, Academic Press, p. 181–198.
  4. Melchior GW, Rudel LL. Heterogenicity in the low density lipoprotein of cholesterol-fed African Green monkey (Cercopithecus aethiops) Biochim Biophys Acta; 531:331–343.
  5. Wissler RW, Vesselinovitch D, Hughes R, Turner D, Frazier L. Aterial lesions and blood lipids in Rhesus monkeys fed human diets. Exp Mol Pathol; 38:117–136

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