Would you eat canary seed? Health Canada says it’s safe for humans

Gluten-free grain touted for high protein and fibre content

Move over, feathered friends: canary seed has been approved for human consumption by Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The high-protein, gluten-free grain—similar in size to flax seed and sesame seed—can now be incorporated whole into energy and snack bars and sprinkled on hamburger buns and bagels. It can also be ground into flour for use in cookies, muffins, crackers, breads, tortillas and pasta.

It’s good news for farmers in Saskatchewan, where the bulk of the world’s canary seed crop is grown and exported.

It’s hoped the approval for human consumption will broaden the market, says Kevin Hursh, executive director of the Canaryseed Development Commission of Saskatchewan.

Carol Ann Patterson, a food scientist with The Pathfinders Research and Management Ltd., in Saskatoon, had been working with the commission since about 2006 as regulatory approval was sought for the seed to be used as a cereal grain, similar to oats, wheat, barley and rye.

“From a protein perspective, compared to other cereals, canary seed ranks up there,” says Patterson.

“And that’s why it’s so good for gluten-free applications because right now a lot of the flours that are used … don’t have the same nutrient composition as canary seed would have in terms of fatty acids, in terms of the vitamins, in terms of fibre and in terms of protein content.”

Roasted canary seed has a nutty flavour with a pleasant aroma, she says, and many baking trials were carried out using the grain because of its gluten-free quality.

“It provides a bit more taste than some of the other products that go into gluten-free foods. If you’re using it with tapioca starch or whatever other starch types we think that it will probably have an application in the gluten-free market because that has been a growth area,” says Hursh, who grows canary seed at his farm near Cabri northwest of Swift Current.

Another bonus is canary seed can be substituted for imported sesame seed. Sesame has been identified as one of 10 priority food allergens by Health Canada.

However, canary seed may not be suitable for consumers with a wheat allergy because there’s one protein that wheat and canary seed have in common. Canary seed for human consumption will need to be labelled with an allergy warning while research is done to see if the restriction can be removed, Hursh says.

The cereal grain originated in the Canary Islands—hence the name—and has been used to feed tame birds for centuries. It’s also been consumed by mainly Spanish and Hispanic cultures in the Mediterranean basin. In recent years, some health-food markets in North America have ground the seed, hull included, and used it in smoothies or soaked it in hot water for a tea, says Hursh.

In Canada, canary seed started being grown in the late 1800s near Indian Head, 70 kilometres east of Regina. It fell out of favour, then was revived in the 1970s and ’80s, says roteatterson.

The human food approval in Canada and the U.S. covers hairless (glabrous) canary seed varieties, with both brown and yellow seeds.

Here are five things to know about canary seed:

WHAT HUMAN FOOD CAN CANARY SEED BE USED IN? Baked goods and mixes for bagels, biscuits, breads, rolls, cookies, crackers, doughnuts, pancakes, waffles, muffins, pies, breakfast cereals, flours and brans. It can be sprinkled like sesame seed and can also be used in energy, meal replacement, and fortified bars; granola and cereal bars; pasta; and snack foods.

IT’S NUTRITIOUS: With about 20 per cent protein, it’s one of the higher protein cereal grains grown in Canada. It has a high percentage of unsaturated fatty acids and provides folate and iron. It’s gluten-free.

CANADA IS THE NO. 1 EXPORTER: Canada has well over 80 per cent of the world’s canary seed exports, with Saskatchewan the top grower. In 2015, an estimated 149,000 tonnes of canary seed with a farm gate value of roughly $90 million was harvested from more than 1,200 square kilometres.

WHERE DOES IT GO? While more than 50 countries regularly purchase Canadian canary seed, the top export destinations are Mexico, Belgium, Brazil, Spain, the United States and Colombia—countries with high populations of caged birds.

WHAT’S NEXT? There have been experiments to mill canary seed to flatten it into flakes, as is done with oats. Some in the industry are looking at extruding it, such as is done with puffed cereals and Cheerios, so it could be used in more snack foods, says food scientist Carol Ann Patterson of The Pathfinders Research and Management. The food-use approval is for dehulled canary seed. Machinery that removes the hull from barley and oats will need to be modified to work with the much smaller canary seed, says Kevin Hursh, executive director of the Canaryseed Development Commission of Saskatchewan. Approval is being sought to use the hulls to feed livestock.