The Athlete and Salba Chia

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It’s the start of my running season and along with getting my training regime underway I’ve also been looking around for ways to improve my diet. I’ve interviewed many athletes the past few years and most of them have made it clear that they don’t care too much about nutrition, they just eat what sits well with them regardless of if that’s kebabs, chocolate, beer, McDonalds, etc. Some of them flourish with such an attitude – perhaps because they’re young – but others don’t seem to be achieving as much as their training suggests they should be doing. On the other hand those athletes who do take an interest in what they eat seem to have gained more than perhaps they should have done given their training patterns. It seems likely to me, with these interviews in mind as well as my own years of experience, that if you want to do the best you can on race day, and continue to do so through the years (it’s easy to hit the high notes when you’re in your 20′s but as you move into your 40′s the years of nutritional abuse can start to tell), you have to consider addressing the issue of what you’re feeding the machine with.

Now, if you’re an active person or if you’re just interested in eating healthy then chances are you already know something about chia. I knew a little about these seeds myself and I’ve used them now and again in the recent past. Not consistently though, only in or around race day. But this year I’ve delved further into the world of chia and the possibilities it can offer the athlete and through that have discovered Salba Chia.

What I read on the Salba Chia website encouraged me to get in touch with them, and having spoken with them I became convinced that this was a company whose ethics matched my own and whom were selling a product which had the potential to help me train harder and to improve my running results.

I say ‘potential’ as we must never forgot that it doesn’t matter what food you eat, if you don’t train to your maximum mental and physical ability then your food can only help you a certain amount. Your nutrition can give you a base from which to exercise, and aid you to recover afterwards, but if you’re not pushing it hard during your daily sessions then you’re not going to realise your own true potential. There are no short cuts to being the best you can be – none that an honest athlete would want to take anyway – only a road that involves hard training and intelligent nutrition.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Salba Chia here are a few quick facts that’ve been proven by various research facilities at established universities (real universities that is, rather than the University of Wikipedia, Google or YouTube that all too many people get their ‘facts’ from nowadays) that I’ve taken from the Salba Chia website to help introduce it to you.

Gram for gram, Salba Chia seed has five times more folate than spinach, fifteen times more magnesium than broccoli, six times more calcium than milk, six times more iron than kidney beans, eight times more omega 3 (ALA) than salmon (EPA/DHA), two times more potassium than bananas, three times more fibre than oats, 70% more vegetable protein than soy beans and 30% more antioxidants than blueberries.

It contains all eight essential amino acids, making it a ‘complete’ protein, which if you’re vegan or just tired of getting your protein from factory farming, is superb news. It’s also sugar and GMO free, contains over 20 vitamins and minerals (including Calcium, Iron, Vitamin C and A, Niacin, Zinc and Copper) and finally, as an additional use to long distance runners, Salba Chia seeds are extremely absorbent.

They can absorb up to 12 times their weight when soaked in water, forming a gel-like substance (this is how I used to take them, before a race in a bottle of water flavoured with lime). This gel-forming action means that the chia slows the rate at which carbohydrates convert into sugar which in turn allows whatever else you’ve eaten to fuel you steadily, for longer, keeping your body fully active for a longer period of time. The slow carbohydrate conversion also stabilizes blood sugars. This absorbent quality of chia also results in better regulation of body fluid levels and electrolyte retention, meaning, you won’t need to drink quite so much during a run, or spend as much money or mental energy on getting electrolyte products into your body to replace lost salts.

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Ok, hopefully all that’s filled you in on what a powerful addition to your diet Salba Chia has the potential to be and that if you’re a long distance runner, doing anything from 10km to an Ultra Marathon, then you should consider using it.

If you do, you’ll be following a tradition that’s been alive with the people of central and south America for over 4,500 years. They called chia ‘the running food’ whilst just five hundred years ago this oily seed was considered by the Aztecs to be more valuable than gold (chia meant ‘oily’ in the Aztec Nahuatl language and also ‘strength in the language of the ancient Mayans, who were the Aztec’s predecessors).

Chia seed has been recorded as being vital to the running of the Aztec empire which during the 1500’s had a population of 11 million people (about 3 times the population of Britain at the time). Not only was it a staple crop that was eaten whole, ground into flour and made into drinks but it was also an essential survival ration for their mighty military – who would supposedly march all day on a handful of the seed – used medicinally for numerous ailments, as a component in perfumes, a protective coating on their paintings and even as part of religious ceremonies when it was formed into primative icons and offered to the gods.

But the Spanish who invaded the Aztec territory saw how powerful chia was within their society and worked hard to abolish its cultivation. They forced the Aztecs to eat crops like wheat, rice and barley instead and once chia had been taken out of the mainstream diet, some say, whatever remained of the Aztec empire crumbled.

For the next few hundred years chia remained hidden from the wider world with just a few isolated pockets of humans benefitting from its power. Humans such as the Tarahumara Indians (the Tarahumara’s word for themselves, Rarámuri, means “runners on foot” or “those who run fast”) who live in the Copper Canyons of the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

I’d first read about the Tarahumara in the now classic book ‘Born to Run’ which told of the amazing feats of running endurance the people of the tribe undertake on a simple diet of which chia is a major part. Marathons are nothing to them – it’s not unusual for people in their 60’s or 70’s to cover marathon distances en route to a friend’s house – and modern research has suggested that they’re among the healthiest humans on the earth.

Straight after I’d read ‘Born to Run’ I’d popped down to my local health shop and found, tucked into a corner, a few bags of chia. At my next marathon I’d stood on the start line, bottle in hand, my chia mixed with water ready to drink. Then, two minutes before the starters gun, I’d downed it all in one go.

The result of this was that it seemed that I didn’t experience a drop in energy until later in the course than I usually would’ve done. There was no noticeable ‘high’, just a delay before the low started to hit. I didn’t break any world records that day but the feeling of increased energy had intrigued me enough to make my chia drink part of my regular diet for a short while. And that’s when the fun started. Having given it a few weeks to get into my system I’d lined up for my next marathon full of expectation. And boy did I deliver. My previous best time had been 3 hours and 21 minutes and now I crossed the line is 3 hours and 14!

But since then race results have sometimes been less impressive and my interest in chia had waned. I couldn’t see constant improvement and to be honest, I was just too lazy to work out my nutrition needs. Sometimes I seem on fantastic form, at other times I run like a slug in lead boots.

Naturally my initial improvement in results might have been down to an improved mental attitude. I had thought the chia would help me, so my own mind power had made it so. I didn’t think that was the case though. I’m always aware that I’m my own worst enemy and that I have to master my mind as well as my body in order to achieve all I can. I really don’t think I could have tricked myself that easily.

So this year I’ve made an effort to understand more about chia and that effort has led me to research many companies, not only looking at what they provide but also how they provide it. I want good food that can help my running but I’m also not so selfish that I want things for myself at the expense of others, or the environment. My food has to be the best it can be, sure, but it also has to be ethically farmed (organically if possible, or needed; some foods are fine when produced non-organically) and the workers who produce it have to be able to live a good life with the wages they earn.

With these criteria in mind only one company in the chia seed field stood out as being of interest; Salba. And when I researched more, this next piece of information really made me sit up and take note.

Salba Chia has undergone intensive research that confirms that it varies very little nutritionally in size or nutritional consistency, whereas with generic chia (generic means, basically, any other chia on sale that’s not Salba Chia) the benefits you get from eating it can vary widely – by up to 40% – in consistency. In other words, eating generic chia will not give you consistent training or race results whilst the benefits of Salba will be the same, month after month, year after year.

From the point of view of an athlete who wants to know as much as possible about how their diet is benefitting them, and wants to rely on foods to produce the goods on race day exactly as they have done during training, that’s very interesting.

This isn’t the only difference between Salba Chia and generic chia. In fact, Salba has 30% more omega-3, 312% more potassium, 20% more antioxidants and 35% more protein than every other type of chia that you’ll find on the shop shelf.

This was a company I felt I wanted to know more about. The nutritional information looked impressive but were their ethics up to standard as well? To find the answers to this and other questions I got in touch with Salba and set up a Skype call with Rally Ralston, one of the company owners. Here’s how that conversation went.

Hi Rally, first of all I’d like to ask about the company name; what does Salba mean?

The name Salba was a combination of taking the registered chia varieties Sahi Alba 911 & 912 and combining the words Sahi Alba into the word/name Salba.

It’s really interesting that Salba Chia never varies in size nor nutritional consistency. Is Salba a natural strain of chia?

There are 80 plus different generic stains of chia, mostly black although some are white. When you look at generic chia it is actually a combination of many different strains all in the same bag as it is typically grown as a wild crop. But our partner growers spent the better part of 20 years separating the generic strains until they originally found 2 strains that were nutritionally consistent crop after crop, lot after lot. They registered these strains as registered varieties and named them Sahi Alba 911 & 912.

To be a registered variety you must show significant difference from the rest of the category/strains much like you have to do with grapes. Our significant difference was, and still is, nutritional consistency. Generic chia of white or black colour can vary by up to 30% nutritionally and up to 40% on the EFA’s crop to crop, lot to lot. Salba Chia, on the other hand, has shown it seldom varies – according to University of Toronto St Michaels Medical Center – by more than 1% crop to crop, lot to lot. I also must point out that in any given year there could be a little more variance as we are dealing in nature, which as we all know is not perfect.

So, to summarise, how does Salba achieve the consistency that other types of chia can’t?

What keeps Salba consistent is that we have our own professional seed plots that produce seeds just for our own use, to reproduce the same seeds in the same plots. We then take some of these seeds and plant elsewhere in Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina. The bottom line is we are planting pure bred varieties in our fields where we grow for selling the seed. When you look at Salba Chia you should be able to see the seeds are consistent in shape and size versus when you look at generic chia, white or black, you can see inconsistent sizing and shapes. If the seed is not consistent in size and shape it is impossible to have nutritional and EFA consistency. Salba Chia seeds are grown as pure bred varieties, whilst the generic chia’s are a wild crop made up of many different strains all planted and harvested together.

What interested you personally about Salba Chia enough to make you want to get involved in marketing it in North America and Europe?

For me it was the nutritional profile of Salba. Salba has it all from Omega-3, fiber, protein, and a ton of minerals. No other whole food on the planet has this nutritional density all in one whole food.

On your website you say “in everything we do, we strive for honesty, fairness and integrity.” You also place great importance on behaving as good stewards of the natural resource you’ve been given, and on leaving a positive impact on the world. Can you tell us a little about your own history that’s brought you to the point of seeing these values as important?

I was raised with these values and they have served me well. I have in my mind many accomplishments, but yet that said they are things that are important to me. My proudest moment is I have been married for 30 years this year, have two grown daughters, and one grand child with two more coming in July of this year. I have served in the military in the Vietnam War and am a decorated veteran with an honourable discharge. My professional career has been successful whilst maintaining these values.

Salba has supported and sponsored the 2014 Lacrosse World Championships. Have you had any feedback from any of the athletes regarding their chia usage?

For the Lacrosse we had a booth at the World Championships and many of the players told us it helps them with stamina either during a game or whilst in training.

I think our readers would really like to hear what Salba Chia can do for their running, biking and hiking performances.

The best feedback I can give on this is to advise them to look at the nutritional content of Salba and then give it a try. Everyone’s body is different so a person needs to learn how much is right for them. Once they find that magic mark then they can take advantage of the energy and nutrition that Salba chia offers day after day. There is no magic bullet since any athlete or active person must remember that hydration and proper nutrition are import if you plan on pushing yourself to the limit. We have had feedback from runners and athletes involved in many different sports including hikers, mountain climbers, soccer players, etc. tell us they sustain much better with Salba chia versus generic chia.

What about people who just want to be healthy without much outdoor activity, what can Salba do for them?

Well, that’s a no brainer; again I must say take a look at the nutritional panel for a single serving, it speaks for itself.

Your website says that Salba is grown in Argentina and other South American countries using organic methods and is non GMO. I’m interested in knowing what that actually means in practice.

The book for organic rules is thick. The simple bottom line is just like a pure bred variety of anything it means no altering of the land (soil), no pesticides, no chemicals in any way, etc.

Does your grower use pesticides, or natural farming methods to keep pests under control?

Because of where we grow there are no pests or bugs, and only some weeds like wild Amaranth that are eliminated in the cleaning process.

Is there anything else you’d like to say regarding the farming methods used? I’m really interested in natural farming methods and would like to hear more about how they can be applied in practice, within a business framework that aims to make a profit as well as tread lightly upon the earth.

Your comment and question goes to the whole organic movement which is too long to go into here. Organic is more expensive since it takes more to maintain the crops due to, for example, more manpower needed to do things like pull weeds. Organic is always produced in much smaller plots of land versus large plots that can just spray, etc. to get rid of whatever pests there are there. The organic trade is in the billions of dollars though and is profitable when done properly, but with much more risk due to commodities prices and the question of will the public buy and understand the difference. Since we became involved in the Organic Industry many years ago with another business it has only grown year after year.

Additionally, I can say that;
Our fields are all treated as if they were organic certified and we have received certification on a number of our fields.
After harvest, unusable vegetation is tilled back into the soil even though the standard practice in Peru is to burn the excess material.
Our laborers respect the land and are properly educated and understand why it is forbidden to throw garbage in the fields.
All farming is done without the use of pesticides.
All irrigation is free of sewer sludge and industrial waste.

How about the farm workers, what controls are in place to make sure they get treated fairly?

Workers in Salba fields and facilities are paid a higher salary than neighbouring farm labourers. Their salaries are paid 14 times per year, monthly, but in July and December double salaries are paid. All laborers are provided with health care and employees who work in the packing facilities are provided work clothes. We also encourage all of our employees’ children to attend school and do whatever is necessary to facilitate the schooling of the children. On top of this, breakfast is provided for all employees and Saturday soccer games are organized which are always well attended.

Salba Chia recently signed up to the Rodale Institute’s ‘Your 2 Cents’ program to help launch the next generation of organic farmers. Can you tell us a little more about this?

This is part of our ongoing support for the Organic movement. Additionally we hope to have a small test plot at Rodale this spring with our new registered variety Sahi Alba 914.

Now, unlike Flax seed, there’s no difference between the nutritional value of whole chia seed and ground chia seed. But can you get more out of the chia if you sprout it?

Yes sprouting will improve almost anything by 20% to 30% nutritionally in certain areas. Sprouting is basically the plant taking some of its nutrients and converting them to energy and other nutrients for growing.

Do its nutrients become more digestible if you sprout it?

It is my understanding it makes no difference, but in fairness to your question there has never been a study on this with Salba Chia or any chia to my knowledge.

(for those interested, here’s a little guide to sprouting chia http://thehappyrawkitchen.blogspot.ca/2010/05/sprouting-chia-seeds.html)

A quality that Salba Chia does have in common with flax, however, is that it can be used as an egg replacement whilst baking. The simple recipe is on your website and I’ve found it very effective (I’ve just created a vegan chocolate cake with chia instead of egg, agave instead of sugar and spelt flour instead of plain white, it’s amazing). Have you any other ideas for using chia?

We do have more recipes, I’ll send them to you. We are also launching soon a website named Chia Chef. A cookie or power ball recipe would be excellent, I think, as it’d make perfect food to have in your pack whilst hiking, biking or running.

Have you any plans for developing other products apart from the seed and ground formats you offer at the moment?

We do have a wish list and are working on it. That said we do feel at this time it is best to stay focused on the seed only since there is much education to do with the general public prior to us to begin to sell a value added product. Our best product will always be just the seed itself.

You’re just branching out into Europe and have just been given a positive novel food opinion by the UK Food Standards Agency, is that right?

Yes, that’s right. We have just made first shipments to Ireland and Italy with Sweden and Germany coming soon as well.

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So, on the back of that conversation Rally and I agreed to work with each other. Salba Chia would provide the Trek and Run team with their chia seed and we’d work hard to investigate if it was something that athletes could benefit from using as part of an informed, balanced diet.

Now, chia takes a few weeks to get into your system so the Canadian part of our team started to take it every day at the beginning of March (mostly sprinkled over our oatmeal but also in other recipes, listed below). As I mentioned at the start of this article we had a 5km race on the 15th of the month, so whilst I’m personally training for marathon distance and above this was a good opportunity to see how well my training was going. I’d never run under 21 minutes and 45 seconds before over 5km distance and my aim was to break the 20 minute mark.

I did that, with a 19:50 finish. I has also been able to train pretty well since I’ve been using Salba Chia. I haven’t yet missed a day’s running either, unless I had no time to run due to family/social commitments.

A final word of caution; if you’re using chia in a regular dosage of about two or three tablespoons per day then you have to take care to increase your water intake by about 1.5 litres per day. There have been several reports of new users experiencing stomach upsets that they put down to using chia – they usually say something like ‘this proves that we’re not all the same and what works for some won’t work for another’. This may be true but I don’t think so. Chia is like any tool, you can’t just use is badly and then complain that it doesn’t work. The seeds soak up to 12 times their weight in water, which means, they’ll soak up lots of water in your stomach. If you don’t drink more you might well suffer.

To learn more about Salba Chia, click here – http://www.salbasmart.com/

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