The term ‘barley sandwich’ is about to get a whole lot more literal.
The Canadian International Grains institute, better known as Cigi, has completed a year-long project examining how blending barley into traditional wheat flour could improve both nutritional properties and milling performance.
On its own, barley can be difficult to mill, often clumping and clogging machines, but Cigi’s senior technology adviser and project leader said hulled barley could make up as much as 50 per cent of a wheat-barley blend with a few milling adjustments, similar to those made to accommodate soft wheat.
“Milling barley is very much like milling soft wheat,” Ashok Sarkar said. “And although there are often separate mills for hard wheat and soft wheat, you can achieve reasonable results milling soft wheat in a hard wheat mill.”
The only catch is that the load must be reduced by about 25 per cent to make it work.
“So barley is very similar to this, it doesn’t sift properly and the endosperm is very gummy or woolly… so you have to open up the apertures or screens in order to allow the material to move,” he said. “It needs help, but when you blend wheat with it, it acts like sand almost, allowing it to flow through.”
Three types tested
The project was funded by Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions, and the Alberta Barley Commission provided the Cigi team with samples of three different types of food barley to work with, including a non-waxy variety with normal starch, a partially waxy variety and a full-waxy variety with high starch content.
These barley types were then blended with wheat at different ratios and milled in pursuit of higher beta-glucan levels. A beta-glucan health claim was approved by Health Canada in 2012 and now foods with at least one gram of barley beta-glucan per serving can be promoted as a way of lowering cholesterol.
“Barley is high in beta-glucan content, which is a dietary fibre,” said Elaine Sopiwnyk, Cigi’s director of grain quality. “Wheat essentially has no beta-glucan content, wheat has some insoluble fibre, but the levels can be really, really bumped up by including barley.”
She added that the United States also allows for barley beta-glucan health claims, giving manufacturers, distributors, millers and bakers yet another reason to include this often-overlooked cereal in their products.
“The excellent thing about barley, is that there is no problem with the taste either. It actually tastes good,” Sopiwnyk added. “So if we can produce products that meet that health claim, tasting good, it is an advantage.”
Sarkar said the consumption of beta-glucan can also lower a person’s risk of coronary heart disease and possibly offset certain cancers. Because of barley’s beta-glucan content, as well as the antioxidants, vitamins and phytonutrients contained in the cereal, it’s also known for its ability to regulate blood glucose levels.
“And this is something that could especially assist those with diabetes,” he noted.
Cigi first began to examine the possibilities of milling barley with wheat several years ago, looking at including about 15 per cent barley at that time. While the trials were successful from a milling perspective, the work was put on the shelf until a year ago.
Sarkar said that in part, the increasing interest in making wheat a healthier option comes from pressures placed on the industry in the wake of Wheat Belly, a widely popular and often discredited book which labelled wheat as the cause of a huge swath of health problems.
“Our customers overseas have been very interested in this and also in North America where health and nutrition are a major focus — especially after the Wheat Belly book, the gluten free and all of this,” he said. “The response to all of this is to come up with a healthier bread or end product, using other cereal crops.”
Sopiwnyk noted that bake tests were not the primary focus of the project but added those that were done showed the flour performed well, although it requires more liquid as a result of the high fibre content.
“There was also a very slight reduction in volume at some level, but not enough to be considered a defect,” she said.
The project leader said more baking trials would likely go ahead in the future.
“But the milling part has been very critical, because nobody wants to invest money to try something new that they don’t know if it works,” said Sarkar. “Launching any new product is expensive, so it was very importent for us to learn from this project, and gain information we could provide.”
Spreading the word
The next goal for Cigi is to get the word out and let people know that milling barley and wheat is an option that works and that it provides nutritional benefits. Farmers also need to know that there is another market opening up for barley.
“So we also need help from the producers’ side,” Sarkar said, adding that millers may have difficulty finding enough hulless barley to add to their wheat until the word gets out.
“So we hope that one day, sooner rather than later, that this gets out and becomes more popular,” he said. “There’s no reason it shouldn’t be.”