The Barley Bin Magazine
Spring / Summer 2022
Welcome to the Barley Bin magazine, a new bi-annual SaskBarley publication, featuring insider industry information and the latest news on barley production and marketing.
Experts say the food opportunities for barley are endless
Affordable, versatile and nutritious, this wholesome grain is ready for its big break.
by Delaney Seiferling
As a food and ingredient for human consumption, barley has a lot going for it.
It’s affordable, easy to cook with, versatile and very nutritious – in fact, it even has a health claim in Canada.
However, barley is not nearly as popular as other prairie grains, such as oats and wheat.
But many people think that could – and should – change.
Potential for the crop
Dr. Marta Izydorczyk is a research scientist with the Canadian Grain Commission’s Grain Research Laboratory. She has been studying barley for approximately 25 years now and thinks the specialty food varieties, which have high beta-glucan content, hold a lot of untapped potential.
“They have unique characteristics that are very beneficial for human health, due to the high concentration of dietary fibre ingredients,” she says.
After completing decades of research on how to best process and incorporate barley into food products, Izydorczyk sees the most potential for the crop as an ingredient to be incorporated into existing grain-based food products, such as breads and pasta.
Using the right amount of barley in these products could provide a nutritional boost, without compromising the overall quality of the product, she says.
“The amount that you need to consume to satisfy the recommended level of beta-glucans is not that high, so you have more concentrated products delivering the health benefits and even potentially allowing products to meet the health claim,” she says.
She also sees a lot of potential for barley to be available as a processed food product, in the form of pearl barley (as it is most commonly available now), flakes, steel-cut grain, or even in new forms.
“Nowadays, many of our varieties are producing very large kernels, so there is a possibility of cutting the barley into shapes or cutting it along the crease and polishing it to make a rice substitute,” she says, adding this is already being done in Japan.
Some smaller Canadian companies are already making and distributing some of these – and other – products.
InfraReady Products, based in Saskatoon, creates and sells 12 barley products.
The most sought after among these products is pearled barley flour, says president Mark Pickard, who started the company in 1994.
He says demand for barley flour has increased in the past two decades, particularly amongst western Canadian markets (while the company exports more than 50 per cent of its products, that’s not the case for barley flour). He attributes the most recent growth to rising numbers of African immigrants, who use the flour for traditional dishes.
Beyond barley flour, InfraReady makes several other specialty barley products, including pearl barley, pre-cooked whole barley, grits and barley flakes. The company also produces high- and low-diastatic barley flours for the baking industry, as well as hulled barley flakes to use as a cereal adjunct in brewing.
During his time in the business, Pickard says he has explored many other promising options for novel barley products. For example, using pre-cooked, waxy, hulless barley as a nutritional, low-fat ingredient in baking.
“It has a waxiness or lubricity to it, so it mimics fat in baking, which replaces the oil,” he says. “So, for example, in muffins it would make them nice and moist.”
InfraReady has also used waxy hulless barley to create a flushable, biodegradable, non-toxic cat litter, called ReadyMate (it’s available at Early’s in Saskatoon).
“It uses the same functional attribute that we exploited in baking – water absorption – but applied to an industrial product,” Pickard says.
Pickard also thinks there’s a lot of opportunity to further explore how high levels of germinated barley could be used in food products to produce a natural chemical, nicknamed GABA, which is associated with anti-seizure and anti-anxiety effects in humans.
“We know that we can get these elevated levels of GABA through processing of waxy hulless barley,” he says.
“There’s lots of food potential, lots of nutraceutical potential. And that’s not even including the beta-glucan aspect.”
More benefits of barley
Beyond the health and functionality aspects of barley, another major benefit is its affordability, says Dorothy Long, communications manager at Canadian Food Focus.
“Right now, people are very concerned about the cost of food and making their food go further,” she says. “So there is appeal for things like barley that are nutritionally dense, but relatively economical, and can be used to stretch other foods.”
Another major benefit of barley is it nourishing quality, she says. “People are worried and looking for ways to comfort themselves, so they are turning to comfort foods, like barley soup and good, hearty breads.”
Despite the potential and appeal of barley, there are several significant barriers to growing the human consumption market.
For one thing, the education piece is missing, says Long, who has worked for decades promoting Canadian-grown foods to consumers.
“Lots of people don’t necessarily know what to do with barley,” she says, adding there is still significant confusion around the differences between pearl and pot barley.
“There’s such a subtle difference between them and yet most people don’t know they can use them interchangeably.”
Furthermore, she says, generally, people just don’t know how to cook with barley.
Canadian Food Focus, which aims to tell the story of Canadian food and farming to consumers, recently published a video about the different kinds of barley and Long was surprised to see that it had over 7,000 views within months of posting.
“We haven’t advertised that video at all,” she says. “And those view just come from people Googling what to do with barley and trying to get an understanding of it.”
Long feels more work could be done on the educational piece. To that end, she has been adding more articles, recipes and cook-along videos featuring barley to the Canadian Food Focus website and social media.
“We need to make people feel more confident about cooking with barley,” she says.
Another piece will be ensuring the supply is there, says Izydorczyk. In her experience, the food industry has long been interested in working with barley as an ingredient, but there are ongoing concerns around supply.
“The effort needs to involve the whole supply chain and ensure the producers growing the barley are appropriately rewarded, because it is a specialty product,” she says.
The CGC recently started collecting information on the quality and nutritional aspects of each year’s Canadian barley supply – including malting, general purpose and food varieties – so the information is available as needed.
Now, with many of the foundational pieces in place – including the knowledge on functionality, the health claim and the passion within the industry around barley – Izydorczyk believes there is a bright future ahead for barley in food markets. She says the industry just needs to be willing to nurture that potential and further the work that has been done to date.
“We have to keep the momentum going.”