Reaching for a refreshing beverage after a long, hot day could someday mean guzzling back a tall glass of barley water. And no, that doesn’t mean beer.
Beverages are the fastest-growing category in food development with new products popping up all the time, says Roberta Irvine at the Food Development Centre in Portage la Prairie.
“For example, we’re also starting to see oat beverages, another trend is maple water, barley water, those sorts of things,” said Irvine. “And from a Manitoba perspective… anything we can do to increase barley, oats in products is really wonderful, because we’re helping Manitoba farmers.”
Soda pop consumption has dropped by about four per cent in North America in recent years, but according to Irvine, consumers are still looking for delicious beverages. Now however, they are increasingly turning to those that promise health and nutrition benefits, as well as added energy.
A mere six years ago the “shot” beverage category — including products like 5-Hour Energy — didn’t even exist. Today the category is worth $1.2 billion.
And it’s those kinds of market changes that have Nancy Ames revisiting a study that began in 2007 that looked at the viability of barley beverages, including hot and cold teas, water and smoothies.
“Maybe we did this too early in time, sometimes you can start a project and it’s not yet time for it, you can be ahead of the game,” said the research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, who is also an adjunct professor in human nutritional sciences at the University of Manitoba’s Richardson Centre for Functional Foods.
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The goal of the study was to determine if the antioxidants and beta-glucan found in barley could be extracted using a hot water method. It turns out they can, although extraction methods, milling techniques and cultivars all affect the levels of beta-glucan and other nutrients.
While the project looked at taste, texture and examined how to best incorporate barley, its scope didn’t include developing or marketing actual products.
“We try and look at ways that we can utilize something, including looking at varieties, looking at processing combinations to say — will this develop a functional product? But usually we’re relying on industry, we’re not really product developers,” Ames said.
“So we do this and industry doesn’t necessarily pick it up because of the timing, but it’s good to have it, because now we do have a health claim for barley and today there may be more opportunities.”
Grains and seeds don’t seem like a natural fit for beverages, but Irvine points to dairy-free milk substitutes made from things like hemp and almonds.
Ames adds that cereals can also be fermented and used as probiotics.
“Cereals have a lot of potential,” she said.
Other Manitoba crops have also been the subject of new beverages, including sea buckthorn, the sole ingredient in the Manitoba-made Solberry purée. Manitoba Harvest also makes Hemp Bliss, a milk substitute.
Although it was never commercialized, the Food Development Centre and the Manitoba Agri-Health Research Network also made a foray into the beverage shot category with a “Saskatoon Shot” made from the namesake berry.
“It was a relaxing shot, because what you’re seeing is this market start to evolve, a move away from just the energy shots,” Irvine said. “Now we’ve got the formulation, so if anyone every approached us we could negotiate.”
Ideally, she would like to see a Manitoba company commercialize and market the drink.
And while it’s not made with an ingredient grown in Manitoba, Yomm Beverages has launched a line of hibiscus teas and bottled drinks with the help of the Food Development Centre.
“We want to expand and we want to add new products… we are also planning on working with the Prairie farmers to incorporate some of the lovely foods we have here,” said Yomm co-founder Meshack Kusa, whose business partner Michael Daramola oversees the production of the company’s hibiscus flowers in Nigeria.
Besides marketing its flavour and rich, inviting colour, Kusa is also promoting the tea’s antioxidant content as a way to improve one’s health.
And he’s not alone.
Beverages are increasingly touted as having tangible health benefits. Irvine notes that at least one overseas brand of water even claims it has the ability to improve memory and ease the symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
But it’s important that these claims are backed up with science, and that consumers do their own research before buying into a product’s claim, notes Ames.
“It is still important when we’re developing these functional beverages to ensure that they do have a functionality,” she said.