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The possibilities of barley: Vast potential, significant challenges

Barley, often the last crop to be penciled into the farm plan, is gaining more interest from the food industry.

September 26, 2008  By Claire Cowan

With corn and soybean prices remaining relatively high, there are concerns that small grains like barley may grow higher in demand with the approach of 2009.

Barley, often the last crop to be penciled into the farm plan, is gaining more interest from the food industry. Although interest in barley from food processors and manufacturers is relatively small, the potential is huge. “I think barley has a lot of potential, specifically because of its nutritional value. It offers a lot of opportunity from that perspective,” says Dr. Nancy Ames, a research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Cereal Research Centre in Winnipeg.

Since 1998, Ames has been researching the possibilities of incorporating barley into food products that would appeal to the North American consumer. She believes that the food industry and consumers should capitalize on barley’s nutritional qualities.

“It has high levels of beta-glucan, which is a soluble fibre, as well as high total dietary fibre. It is shown to reduce cholesterol and therefore the risk of heart disease as well as impact glycemic response. In addition, it has vitamin E in the germ component and contains anti-oxidants,” details Ames.


The high levels of beta-glucan are getting barley the most attention because beta-glucan is not found at such levels in any other cereal. Dr. Brian Rossnagel, a professor at the University of Sask-atchewan and a breeder with the university’s Crop Development Centre, has been involved in breeding efforts to increase the levels of beta-glucan in barley. “We started in the early 1980s with a program particularly aimed at enhancing the beta-glucan content and we have released four varieties to date,” says Rossnagel.

These varieties, among others, have the potential to produce healthy food products. Ames cites the diversity of barley varieties as an asset to food product creation. “As an ingredient, barley offers a lot of opportunity because there are so many different varieties and they are so diversified. They have different starch properties and they have different functional properties that go along with the starch and fibre com-position,” continues Ames.

In her research, Ames has used barley as the main ingredient in the creation of a flour tortilla, a tortilla chip and a crunchy snack product. “It’s a showcase to the potential of barley and how many ways it can be used.”
Taste tests conducted on these products have been very positive.

Ames sees potential benefits for producers as well as consumers. “I believe that any time there are more market opportunities it is good for farmers,” she explains.

Milled barley can be used for snack foods much the same as ground corn, but the road to acceptance in North America is slow, despite the many health benefits.

Finding value for producers is the goal of Rossnagel’s research with the Crop Development Centre. Concerning the development of barley varieties specific for use in food products, Rossnagel says that “if it is a big deal for some producers who can create some income and create some jobs from it, then we have been successful.”

Quentin Martin has realized the value of barley, among other grains, in his production and processing facility in Ontario. At his Cribit Seeds and Wintermar Farms operation near Elmira, Ontario, Martin does minimal barley processing, focusing instead on cleaning, flaking and roasting for the baking and brewing industry.  Yet he is optimistic about the potential of barley as an ingredient in more food products.

Martin also finds potential in barley for producers and has been trying to build awareness of that potential. While he concedes that “barley and oats have been considered the poor brothers and sisters of corn, soybeans and wheat,” he insists that with proper management, barley can provide equal economic returns as the big three.

“Frankly, most growers have not been aggressive enough in their management of oats and barley. And from our experience, growers who have tried oats and barley, and followed a more serious recipe have stayed with the crops by and large,” explains Martin.

Challenges facing barley food products
Despite the potential, there are many challenges barley must overcome before it is recognized as a common ingredient in food products. Currently, Ames’s barley food product innovations are still available for uptake by large-scale food manufacturers. She chalks up this lack of commercialization to the fact that barley has never been important in the North American diet.
Although barley plays a prominent role in the diets of people in many other cultures, specifically Tibet, most North Americans only know barley as an ingredient in their beer and in their soup. Unlike its sister, oats, consumers are not aware of barley as an ingredient in food let alone its health properties.

Ames sees this lack of awareness as a roadblock to barley’s potential. “If we could just get it into the diet, maybe food producers would be more willing and more interested in making some of their own unique products,” continues Ames.

Traditional pot or pearled barley found on grocery store shelves can be added easily to the average North American diet. Martin explains that “the neat thing about barley is that you can substitute it for rice. Think about the potential of that. Not only are you substituting in a product with a lower glycemic index and better fibre quality, you are substituting something that is produced locally.”

Overcoming the challenges

Currently, Ames and her colleagues are working on obtaining a Health Canada recognized claim to barley’s nutritional qualities. A similar claim already exists in the United States. Both Ames and Rossnagel have high hopes that a health claim will build awareness of barley’s unique qualities and create a demand among consumers for barley food products.

“It really advertises it in a sense,” says Ames of the health claim. “It markets the product and people become more aware because of the health issues. Then they start to become interested and they want to get the product because they have heard about it from the health claim,” she continues.

Rossnagel believes the health claim will provide the most benefit for small-scale processors. “The health claim is really important for small Canadian, locally owned operations so they can operate within the rules of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Health Canada and be allowed to make statements about their products and on their products,” details Rossnagel.

Ames also mentions small-scale processors as an integral player in the expansion of the barley food market. Although large companies are not yet prepared to take any big steps, she has found small-scale processors willing to take on some risk and fill niche markets. “I think there is quite a bit
of opportunity for small-scale production right now,” says Ames.

Although there are many challenges still to overcome, Ames, Martin and Rossnagel all agree that barley offers a significant potential in the food industry and therefore, potential in the field. 


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