It’s technically a seed, but categorized as a grain because it’s one of the world’s most commonly cooked and eaten staples. Yet North Americans have either never heard of millet, or know it as livestock feed or birdseed.
Gluten-free, nutritious millet has a fighting chance to gain popularity with health-conscious consumers too, says a Manitoba farmer who has developed nearly half a dozen ways to consume it as food.
Reynald Gauthier, owner of Millet King Seeds of Canada Inc., has grown millet since the early 1990s on his farm at St. Claude. More recently, he’s been a tough contender and a two-time winner at the Great Manitoba Food Fight with a millet-brewed beer and a specialty “Crunchies” Manitoba-made cereal from millet and maple syrup.
He’ll be back again this year, bringing a ready-to-eat millet pancake/waffle mix, just as convinced he’s got another winner.
“What sells your product is the quality of your product,” said Gauthier. “And all my products have been made with no shortcuts.”
It was a casual conversation with a visitor to his booth at a trade show nearly a decade ago that got him thinking about millet as more than livestock fodder.
“I was just sitting there with my millet in a bucket and no pamphlets or anything with me, and she came up to me and looked at it and said, ‘That’s gluten free, why don’t you make a food product with it?’”
Soon afterward, he was at the Food Development Centre in Portage la Prairie seeking advice.
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Alphonsus Utioh, FDC’s manager of product and process development was immediately intrigued with his proposal for a millet beer. Millet-brewed beer is consumed in other parts of the world and it was a product tailor-made for the emerging gluten-free market.
“I’d had exposure to someone who could not drink the conventional beer because he had celiac disease and I thought that was very unique,” he said.
FDC eventually steered Gauthier to the Canadian Malting Barley Technology Centre in Winnipeg where staff there created a Manitoba-made version of traditional millet beer.
Gauthier says he is now looking for ways to commercialize the Blonde beer with a nutty flavour under the name Good Old Fashioned millet beer.
That beer also launched his food-fighting adventures at the annual product competition hosted by Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Development. He won $10,000 in a second-place finish at the 2010 food fight, and used the cash to continue working with the FDC staff on more millet food products.
To date, that collaboration has resulted in the new pancake mix, a cleaned and packaged whole millet seed, flour, and the “Crunchies” cereal made using extrusion technology, which earned him a third place in the 2011 food fight. All products are now “market ready” and Gauthier says he is looking to hire a marketing team to start commercializing.
These products have good potential, says FDC’s Paulynn Appah, the senior process development consultant at the Food Development Centre.
The cereal and pancake mix use a significant amount of millet flour — about 45 per cent, which makes these foods very nutritious because millet itself has an excellent nutritional profile, Appah said.
The entire millet seed has also been used to make this flour, making it a whole grain flour with a number of value-added advantages in bakery and functional food applications, she said.
“We are not dehulling it, so you have a really nutritionally dense product.”
The FDC developed a standardized process for cleaning millet seed, to create a ‘food grade’ category, she adds.
Utioh agrees there is considerable potential for products made with millet due to its gluten-free attribute as well as its nutritional value. But he sees uptake by consumers beyond those looking for gluten-free products.
“These products are good for those with celiac, but also good for general health too,” he said.
Test marketing of the flour Gauthier milled at the FDC, has been well received with customers coming back for more. As he is hoping to produce all his millet products here at home, he’s excited about the potential for job creation as well as expansion of cropping options for farmers.
Gauthier is one of 10 contestants competing at the Great Food Fight, which takes place May 2 and 3 at Red River College School of Hospitality and Culinary Arts at 504 Main Street in Winnipeg.
The event is for food makers who have developed, but not fully commercialized, a new or innovative food product. They compete for one of three product development and service awards.
This year’s lineup also includes makers of a fish sausage, a vegan pie shell, a whole grain beer bread mix, ice cream and other innovative Manitoba-made food products.
“We have competitors from right across Manitoba so that’s really exciting,” said food fight chairperson and Manitoba Food and Rural Development staff member Shauna McKinnon.