Canaryseed has finally achieved food status, but it comes with a condition.
It took 10 years, millions of dollars and reams of documentation to achieve novel food approval for the crop from Health Canada and Generally Recognized as Safe status from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“With the achievement of this milestone, we’re hopeful that the food industry and consumers will begin to adopt this nutritious, high protein, gluten free grain,” Canaryseed Development Commission of Saskatchewan chair David Nobbs said in a news release issued during Crop Production Week.
However, Health Canada has stipulated that any product containing canaryseed must also contain a wheat allergy warning unless the product already has wheat as a labelled ingredient.
That’s because canaryseed contains a protein that appears to be related to wheat. It is not known if it will cause the same kind of allergies as wheat protein.
The commission hopes to refute that assumption through clinical trials, but those are expensive and time-consuming.
Kevin Hursh, the commission’s executive director, said the organization contemplated holding off on the food use announcement until the protein issue was resolved but decided to proceed.
“It has been so long coming we thought it’s better to get it out in the marketplace as an approved food despite the fact that in a lot of products it will have to have this cautionary statement,” he said.
Hursh worries it will hurt sales into the gluten-free food market, which is one of the target markets for the crop because consumers don’t understand gluten intolerance is unrelated to wheat allergies.
Other potential food markets include using canaryseed flour to make bread, cookies, cereals and pasta and whole seeds in nutrition bars and to sprinkle on hamburger buns in place of sesame seeds.
One obstacle is the cost of the product. Growers are paid around 25 cents per pound, or $12.50 per bushel.
“Compared to wheat or compared to barley or malting barley, it’s not a cheap product, but compared to sesame seed, I think it’s probably pretty reasonable,” said Hursh.
The market will decide whether farmers will receive a premium for growing food quality canaryseed, but Hursh doubts farmers will plant the crop if they don’t.
The approvals cover glabrous or hairless varieties with both brown and yellow seeds. He estimates 40 percent of the current production is glabrous.
Farmers are still growing hairy or itchy varieties because they yield better than the glabrous lines, but hairless varieties are in the breeding pipeline that will close that gap.
“I look forward to the day when the yields of the glabrous types are good enough that nobody will want the itchy ones anymore and we’ll get the itchy ones right out of the equation because they’re miserable to work with,” said Hursh.
All of the canaryseed varieties that have been commercialized to date contain brown seeds.
Pierre Hull, a canaryseed breeder at the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre, will be seeking approval for a yellow variety at the variety registration meetings in February. It could be available for commercial distribution in 2017 or 2018.
Yellow seeds have the same nutritional qualities as brown seeds but are more aesthetically pleasing in many food products.
However, there are a couple of hurdles to overcome before farmers will be growing canaryseed for human consumption.
Crop protection products registered for use on canaryseed are registered only for birdseed. The commission is working on expanding those registrations to include canaryseed produced for food. The products are already registered for use on other food crops.
Commercial dehulling plants will also be needed. Hursh has spoken to one company that wants to attempt to use its barley dehulling equipment on canaryseed.
Obtaining food use approval for the crop has been a long, arduous process. The commission was formed in 2006 with that purpose in mind.
“It was a lot longer than anybody ever expected, but it is the first and so far the only novel cereal grain to be registered in Canada,” Hursh said.
The market for birdseed is stagnant, and the hope is that food use approval will help take the crop beyond today’s 300,000 acres and 150,000 tonnes of production.
However, Hursh cautioned it will take time to generate interest by food companies and for them to switch over their recipes.
“I think it’s a big deal eventually. I don’t think it’s going to be a big deal right off the hop,” he said.
“If you look at the experience with things like flax for the human food market, that developed gradually over many years.”