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What’s new in food barley?

Health benefits are fact not fad.

November 15, 2007
By Donna Fleury


Market trends and consumer demands for healthier foods, nutraceuticals and
functional foods are creating renewed interest in various crops including barley.
Trends such as the low carb diet are creating a huge demand for fibre-enriched
products, and barley is a perfect match. "Manufacturers are looking for
unique sources of fibre such as the rich sources of beta-glucans contained in
barley," says Kelley Fitzpatrick of Nutrascience Solutions in Winnipeg.
"Both barley and oat have a lot of science behind them to prove they offer
high sources of excellent beta-glucan, and the technology for concentrating
beta-glucans from barley and oat keeps getting better."

The low carb trend has created a whole new range of products and an increase
in sales of concentrated fibre sources. "About two percent of food products
introduced in 2001 were identified as high in fibre, and by 2004 that had doubled
to four percent," says Fitzpatrick. When put into context of the total
number of products on the market, this is quite significant and translates into
thousands of products being introduced into the low carb market. As well, dieticians,
nutritionists and health professionals accept beta-glucans as having a positive
role to play in heart-healthy diets. They recognize beta-glucans and their health
benefits as fact and not fad.

Low carb products are high in protein and high in fibre, and the higher the
fibre content the lower the net carbs. "The higher fibre content is beneficial
for lowering blood cholesterol and blood glucose, and it also makes people feel
full faster which means they take in less calories," explains Fitzpatrick.


However, researchers at the University of Toronto have discovered that good
nutrition is not just about fibre, it is about good carbs and bad carbs, which
can be measured by a glycemic index (GI) of foods. "It's very similar to
dietary fat where at first it was all bad, but as the science evolved we realized
there are 'good' sources of fats, which are essential to our health, and 'bad'
fats. People need fat in their diet." Carbohydrates are exactly the same.

The GI is a more sophisticated way of looking at total carbohydrates in a diet.
"One of the pillars of a GI is fibre, because fibre-containing foods have
a low GI," says Fitzpatrick. "Basically, scientists measure the GI
of a food as the extent to which it affects blood glucose (sugar) levels. Low
GI foods, which contain 'good' carbohydrates, break down slowly and release
glucose gradually into the blood stream." Such foods moderate blood glucose
and blood insulin, and do not produce an immediate sugar boost.

Foods with high GI or high levels of 'bad' carbs break down quickly during
digestion, producing a blood sugar response that is fast and high. "Spikes
in blood glucose and blood insulin can lead to long-term diabetes, which is
fast becoming one of the leading, serious health diseases in both adults and
children in North America, as well as to fat deposition." So although the
low carb trend may be hitting a plateau, the demand for foods with high fibre
and good carbs continues to rise.

"One of the advantages that oat currently has over barley is the industry
has successfully lobbied the FDA in the US to approve a health claim for beta-glucans
from oat. This is partly a result of having a large food giant like Quaker Oats
leading the claim application. Unfortunately, not all crops or industries have
such an influential leader, and find it more challenging to go through the health
claim process. The good news is that a group has submitted a health claim request
to the FDA for barley beta-glucans similar to the oat beta-glucan claim. Hopefully
it will receive approval," Fitzpatrick explains.

Dr. Nancy Ames, cereal quality chemist and research scientist with Agriculture
and Agri-Food Canada at the Cereal Research Centre in Winnipeg, is part of the
Barley Product Development Committee that is supporting the submission of the
barley health claim. "We haven't received approval yet, but if we do, it
will be very important for barley food product development in the US. This usually
spills over into Canada because we would be producing some of that barley."

Fitzpatrick adds that the demand for specific varieties, higher beta-glucans
and value-added applications could potentially result in identity preserved
systems for growers. "From the functional food and nutraceuticals regulatory
point of view, traceability back to the farm gate will be required, which means
the industry will need to rely on a sophisticated farming community to be able
to handle the kind of standards of operation necessary to meet those requirements."

New barley food products developed Ames works with barley, oat and other major
cereal grains. "Barley is loaded with nutrients and has a lot of advantages
because of its diversity in terms of different varieties," she says. "Along
with fibre rich components such as beta glucans, barley also has a great variation
in starch composition, which results in all kinds of functional properties that
food scientists can utilize for different products.

"It's important to understand that barley is a unique cereal, and rather
than trying to incorporate it into foods as a substitute wheat or oat, the benefits
of barley can be applied in new places," says Ames. "Barley doesn't
have to be milled the same as wheat or oat. It is a different grain and has
very different properties. I work with all three grains and don't see the point
of trying to fit one grain into the use of another."

Ames has developed barley tortillas, a successful new barley product. Wheat
has a lot of gluten, which is important for making good bread. Unlike wheat,
barley does not make good bread on its own, but it does make great tortillas.
"We've developed barley tortillas out of barley and water, which is a difficult
idea for some people to believe." If you mix wheat and water, you get glue.
When you mix barley and water you get a great flexible dough.

"We've done a lot of work with barley tortillas and market development
studies, done at the University of Manitoba show, it's a viable business opportunity.
The tortillas are very healthy and in both consumer taste studies and trained
panel taste studies, they have rated very high as a good product that people
would buy." So far no one has commercialized the idea, but Ames would be
willing to help anyone who would like to take this product concept to market.

Ames has worked on a couple of other products using the whole grain concept.
"We experimented with using infrared heat as a method of stabilizing the
whole grain, rather than having to try and remove part of the outside as with
pearled or pot barley. The barley germ contains oil and enzymes which can cause
the barley grain to go rancid if the outside isn't removed. We did a study to
determine if infrared heat could deactivate enzymes in the whole grain before
milling and produce a stable flour product for all storage conditions,"
she explains. "We wanted to test the effect of the infrared heat treatment
on both flour and the finished tortilla products to make sure they didn't change
in any way as a result of the heat." The research results showed that the
infrared heat treatment did not cause any changes, other than a bit to the functionality
of protein, which is not a concern with barley tortillas or flour.

"We discovered that different varieties responded differently to the heat
and we ended up with some other useful products," adds Ames. "Some
of the varieties puff up a bit, and we were able to make a very fast cooking
whole grain." This whole grain product cooks in less than five minutes
and can be used as a replacement for rice or other whole grains in recipes.
Some of the other varieties did not puff up at all and, in fact, ended up with
a texture like an almond. Ames developed a barley chocolate cluster product
that could be used as a replacement for similar nut products.

"One of the other products we're working on right now is a healthy beverage,
and no it's not beer," she notes. "We're looking at a dairy substitute
type of product, which is based on some similar work done with oat in Finland."
The project is partially funded by the Alberta Barley Commission. "There
are a lot of things that can be done with barley, and I'm also interested in
potential cosmetic uses of barley." Barley has a lot of vitamin E, beta-glucans
and phenolic antioxidants, all of which are demanded as ingredients in the cosmetics

Ames recently attended a Barley Stakeholders meeting at the Beltsville Nutrition
Centre in Maryland. "This group of barley stakeholders is really expecting
something to happen in the future, especially if the health claim for beta-glucans
is successful. That is going to have a fairly big impact."

Ames has also noticed an increasing interest in barley, but part of the challenge
is a lack of available material. "I have a lot of people who contact me
for specific varieties trying to develop some market opportunities, but if they
can't get a hold of the material they will drop it. Unfortunately, a lot of
people contacting me will just use whatever varieties they can access, and with
the significant diversity in barley varieties, they may end up using the wrong
variety for their particular use."

Although there are a lot of potential opportunities for using various barley
varieties, Ames is concerned there is lack of communication and linkages between
the many players in the value chain. "To really move the barley industry
forward, we need to get the producers, researchers and food processing companies
together to make sure the right varieties are available for the right uses at
the right time. It's not about making it anymore; it's about connecting the
right players to meet the new demands in the marketplace." -30-