After decades adorning everything from a zoo-worthy collection of clay critters to presidential busts, ch-ch-ch-chia seeds finally are ready to ditch the kitsch.
Because in recent years these tiny black seeds have gone from an as-seen-on-TV punch line to a must have ingredient in the natural foods world, taking starring roles in smoothies, health drinks, energy bars, crackers, cereal, granola, even pasta.
"People think 'chia' in the U.S. and they think 'green hair on a terra cotta figurine,'" said Peter Georgii, new product manager for San Francisco-based Joseph Enterprises Inc., which created the Chia Pet in 1981 and recently released an edible seed product. "What's becoming known now is the benefits to your diet."
Packed with omega-3 fatty acid — more than flax seed — along with fiber, calcium and antioxidants, the native Mexican seed is being touted by runners, yoga moms and all manner of other health conscious eaters.
Sales of edible chia have skyrocketed during the past two years, retailers and specialty food experts say, driven at least in part by an overall growing interest in so-called ancient grains, such as quinoa and amaranth.
Bob's Red Mill, a national grain seller based in Milwaukie, Ore., began carrying chia in 2009. Sales last year saw quadruple growth, said vice president of sales Robert Agnew, and already show signs of continued growth this year.
Joseph Enterprises began selling edible seeds in a few hundred CVS and Walgreens drug stores last year, Georgii said, and now sells them in thousands of stores, as well as online.
"In the last year, they've really jumped in popularity," said Kara Nielsen, trend analyst with California-based product developer CCD Innovation, who first identified chia's trend potential in 2006. She credits recent publicity from television health gurus, athletes and online chatter with fueling the popularity.
"When you start having these different groups, you're talking about a lot of people," Nielsen said. "The press will also keep rippling this out and it will get broader and broader."
Health food aficionados have likely known about chia since the mid-2000s, when people such as natural health personality Dr. Andrew Weil first began talking about them. Runners got on board thanks to the 2009 book "Born to Run" by Christopher McDougall, which credited the seeds as a source of sustenance for Mexico's Tarahumara Indians, who run hundreds of miles.
"It really can be traced to that book," said Joanna Golub, senior editor at Runner's World magazine. "That's when a wider audience of runners became aware of it. It's always been on the fringe, but that's when it came up on the radar for all sorts of runners."
The seeds — which resemble poppy seeds — have become an especially popular addition to drinks. That's because when soaked in water, the seeds develop a gelatinous coating, giving them the texture of tapioca. Add them to a drink and the result is similar to Japanese bubble tea — a thick beverage full of floating, jelly-like balls.
They are a common addition to kombucha, a popular health drink. And Empellon, an upscale Mexican restaurant in New York, even featured them in a cocktail.
"It adds a cool texture that's definitely an acquired taste," says Christine Muhlke, executive editor of Bon Appetit magazine, who abandoned flax for chia. "And it gives that little halo of health."
Oh, and as for the Chia Pets? They haven't gone anywhere. They flood into stores during the holidays and are available all year online. And Georgii says sales today are sometimes even stronger than in the heyday of "Chia Guy" and "Chia Ram."
But seeds — the ones you eat — are the future.
"Dietary chia will outpace the Chia Pet," Georgii said. But he warns not to go pilfering from the pet's packet. Those seeds aren't grown, packed, stored or quality checked for human consumption. "People should not eat the seeds sold in the pets," he says.