TORONTO — Move over, feathered friends: canary seed has been approved for human consumption by Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The high-protein, gluten-free grain — similar in size to flax seed and sesame seed — can now be incorporated whole into energy and snack bars and sprinkled on hamburger buns and bagels. It can also be ground into flour for use in cookies, muffins, crackers, breads, tortillas and pasta.
It's good news for farmers in Saskatchewan, where the bulk of the world's canary seed crop is grown and exported.
It's hoped the approval for human consumption will broaden the market, says Kevin Hursh, executive director of the Canaryseed Development Commission of Saskatchewan.
Carol Ann Patterson, a food scientist with The Pathfinders Research and Management Ltd., in Saskatoon, had been working with the commission since about 2006 as regulatory approval was sought for the seed to be used as a cereal grain, similar to oats, wheat, barley and rye.
"From a protein perspective, compared to other cereals, canary seed ranks up there," says Patterson.
"And that's why it's so good for gluten-free applications because right now a lot of the flours that are used ... don't have the same nutrient composition as canary seed would have in terms of fatty acids, in terms of the vitamins, in terms of fibre and in terms of protein content."
Roasted canary seed has a nutty flavour with a pleasant aroma, she says, and many baking trials were carried out using the grain because of its gluten-free quality.
"It provides a bit more taste than some of the other products that go into gluten-free foods. If you're using it with tapioca starch or whatever other starch types we think that it will probably have an application in the gluten-free market because that has been a growth area," says Hursh, who grows canary seed at his farm near Cabri northwest of Swift Current.
Another bonus is canary seed can be substituted for imported sesame seed. Sesame has been identified as one of 10 priority food allergens by Health Canada.
However, canary seed may not be suitable for consumers with a wheat allergy because there's one protein that wheat and canary seed have in common. Canary seed for human consumption will need to be labelled with an allergy warning while research is done to see if the restriction can be removed, Hursh says.
The cereal grain originated in the Canary Islands — hence the name — and has been used to feed tame birds for centuries. It's also been consumed by mainly Spanish and Hispanic cultures in the Mediterranean basin. In recent years, some health-food markets in North America have ground the seed, hull included, and used it in smoothies or soaked it in hot water for a tea, says Hursh.
In Canada, canary seed started being grown in the late 1800s near Indian Head, 70 kilometres east of Regina. It fell out of favour, then was revived in the 1970s and '80s, says Patterson.
The human food approval in Canada and the U.S. covers hairless (glabrous) canary seed varieties, with both brown and yellow seeds.
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Lois Abraham, The Canadian Press
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