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Barley Flour Makes Fantastic Tortillas

If it takes a proven health claim to gain consumer acceptance of barley-based food products, then that’s what Nancy Ames plans to do. Ames, a cereal grain research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Winnipeg, used funding from the Western Grains Research Foundation’s Endowment Fund to develop new food uses for barley.

“It started off looking for additional ways to use barley, other than animal feed and malt. Brian Rossnagel, the barley breeder in Saskatoon, had developed barley varieties with unique characteristics, specifically from a starch point of view,” says Ames.

“We recognized that different barley genotypes had unique starch and beta glucan properties which provided opportunities for application to different food products.”

Ames says some of these unique characteristics lend themselves to creating doughs that were really surprising. She could make a dough out of just barley and water, resulting in products that were very extensible.

“The main food that occurred to me when I saw this extensible dough was a tortilla because I recognized that this was a limitation in the tortillas I had seen on the market. Selecting the right barley cultivar is key to producing a soft, pliable tortilla with good taste and colour,” she says.

Ames and her lab group have evaluated about 30 cultivars and genotypes for tortilla quality and they now have a good idea of what characteristics make the best product. The product is made with whole-grain flour and consists of 100 per cent barley and water without additives.

She also developed a crunchy product, similar to a tortilla chip.

“We worked with a local manufacturer to make a really tasty barley chip. We produced the chips on a large scale to carry out sensory evaluation in a consumer trial at the University of British Columbia. For flavour and texture, the barley chip was rated very high but for colour, people still preferred the familiar yellow of a corn chip,” she says.

Ames realized that having a nutritious, tasty product produced on a lab scale isn’t enough to generate commercial interest. She proceeded to acquire a U. S. patent on her products.

A patent helps capture the industry’s interest. Knowing that they would have exclusive rights to a product or process provides industry with more incentive to undertake all the extra effort and time required to transfer this from a laboratory-scale project into an industrial-scale process, with packaging, labelling and consumer demand.

Consumer awareness is part of the driving force behind demand for new, healthy food products. Ames is working with other stakeholders in the barley industry, trying to get a health claim registered for barley beta glucan in Canada.

In early 2009, a generic health claim petition was submitted to Health Canada for reviewing the role of barley beta glucan soluble fibre in reducing blood cholesterol levels and therefore reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Ames recently took a one-year work transfer to the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals in Winnipeg, to pursue research on validating nutritional benefits of barley.

“The initial work was related to health claims that already exist in the world based on barley beta glucan’s effect on lowering cholesterol. Many clinical trials have already documented that,” says Ames.

“Now we’re doing new research looking at barley as a low-glycemic index-type food. We’ve formulated different barley tortillas containing specific types and levels of fibre in order to evaluate their effect on glycemic response in a human clinical nutrition trial currently being conducted at the University of Manitoba.”

Ames feels continuing to educate consumers on the nutritional benefits of barley and exploring the utilization potential of this versatile grain may help create a demand for new barley products and greater market opportunities for producers.

The Endowment Fund, the original core fund of WGRF, has supported more than 200 research projects since 1983. Research reports on many projects are available on the WGRF website.

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