Forget the apple — a few grams of barley will keep the doctor away.
Health Canada has given its stamp of approval to the grain after years of research established that beta-glucan, a type of fibre found in barley, can reduce blood cholesterol, which is a risk factor for heart disease.
“A health claim really validates barley,” said Nancy Ames, an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada researcher in Winnipeg who has been studying the health effects of barley beta-glucan for two decades and who wrote the application to Health Canada on behalf of the Alberta Barley Commission.
“Health Canada’s acceptance of science that substantiates the claim means that we can communicate specific health benefits of eating foods that contain barley beta-glucan.”
And you don’t have to slap on a feed bag to get barley’s health benefits. The daily recommended amount of beta-glucan is just three grams and the barley can be contained in pasta, tortillas, chips or pizza dough.
The hope is that food manufacturers will want to use barley as an ingredient so they can promote its health benefits, Ames said.
“I think it can really be helpful to the barley industry provided that everyone works together and moves forward on it,” she said.
The health claim gives farmers incentive to grow more food-grade barley and will expand marketing options to sell their crop, said Matt Sawyer, chairman for the Alberta Barley Commission.
“It’s going to be a new market. It’s up to us now to really promote it and see where we can go with it,” said Sawyer. “I think it will help grow our industry.”
Presently, just a small fraction — somewhere between one and three per cent — of Canadian-grown barley is consumed as food, with the vast majority going to the feed and malt sectors.
“It’s very small (but) that doesn’t mean it can’t grow if there’s more interest,” Sawyer said.
There are also new varieties on the horizon possessing not only the desired higher levels of beta-glucan, but also meeting quality demands for the malting and feed markets, he added.
Although many Canadians like nothing better than a barley sandwich on a hot summer day, getting them to eat barley in a solid form will be more challenging, Sawyer concedes.
“It’s kind of a whole new thing,” he said. “We have a lot of work ahead getting the consumer to understand it. It’ll be an uphill climb, but an exciting one.”
The health claim includes dehulled or hulless barley, pearl barley, barley flakes, grits, meal, flour and bran, as well as beta-glucan-enriched milling fractions but excludes extracted barley beta-glucan.
The main way Canadians currently eat barley is as pot and pearl barley, and as barley flour in home baking.
The Food and Drug Association approved a health claim for barley in the U.S. in 2006.