Canary seed no longer for the birds, Health Canada says

It's a popular snack for our feathered friends, but soon humans may be eating canary seed, too.

Ottawa approves hairless variety of seeds for human consumption

Health Canada approves hairless variety of bird seed for human consumption and the gluten-free property of the food opens many potential uses 2:18

It's a popular snack for our feathered friends, but soon humans may be eating canary seed, too.

Canary seed cheese puffs? It's not out of the realm of possibility, according to Shannon Hood-Niefer.

That's right: canary seed cookies, canary seed bread, even canary seed cheese puffs.

"It's exciting news for the canary seed producers in Saskatchewan and across Canada," said Carol Ann Patterson, a food microbiologist who has been working on the research needed to get regulatory approval.

Getting through the regulatory hurdles has taken time, but now both Health Canada's food directorate and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have given the green light. And that means snacks and breads made with canary seed flour are on their way.  
Hairless canary seed has been approved for human consumption.

Opportunities 'endless' for hairless variety

"Right now, the only market allowable for canary seed is bird feed, both pet and wild," Patterson said. 

"This hairless variety allows us to go into the human food market... the opportunities are endless."

Traditional canary seed has microscopic hairs on the hulls, with a texture similar to fibreglass. (Nati Harnik/Associated Press)

Traditional canary seed has microscopic hairs on the hulls, with a texture similar to fibreglass. 

About 20 years ago, a Saskatoon researcher, Pierre Hucl, naturally bred a new variety that is hairless and thus safe for humans. 

It could be a boon for Prairie farmers like Rick Brown.

Brown, 55, has been growing the grain for nearly 30 years and says the market has been static, but that may change with the new approval.

"I think any added market for our product is definitely going to be a plus," he said. "I don't think it's going to be a boom right away, but in the long run, I think it's definitely going to help us."

It's the first food cereal grain approved in Canada since Health Canada started its Novel Food classification in 1995.

Product is high-protein, gluten-free

From a consumer point of view, it's an enticing product on a number of levels. 

Canary seed is gluten free and is also high in protein — at about 20 per cent, the levels are much higher than other cereal grains.

Carol Ann Patterson holds hairless canary seed that's safe for humans to eat. (CBC)

It's also tasty, according to the researchers at the Saskatchewan Food Centre at the University of Saskatchewan, where new food products using the hairless variety, such as gluten-free breads and snack foods, are being developed.

"It's very good," Shannon Hood-Niefer said as she popped a cheese puff-like snack food made from canary seed flour into her mouth. "We're looking at how the canary seed flour expands, how it would function in a breakfast food or cereal."

Long road to regulatory approval

The Canary Seed Development Commission of Saskatchewan was the driving force behind the hairless seed breakthrough. It spent many years and a lot of money, receiving provincial and federal funding, to gather the research necessary for regulatory approval.

Both yellow and brown hairless canary seed have been approved for human consumption, however, only brown seeds are being commercially produced at this time. 

Patterson expects it will take a couple years for farmers to grow the more aesthetically-pleasing yellow seed, which is more likely to be used in baked goods.
In the meantime, expect a debate to break out about whether it's time to rename canary seed and signal the public that's it's not just for the birds any more.

With files from Bonnie Allen


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