Wheat of the future might be purple

Posted on January 15, 2013

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by Noelle Chorney

Mark Pickard, President of InfraReady Products

Mark-Pickard-Picture-Infraready

With its impressive health benefits, locally developed AnthoGrain™ has the potential to take markets by storm. You may be surprised to discover that many of the flaked grains in granolas and other whole food products from companies all over North America were produced in Saskatoon. InfraReady products has been processing whole grain products for almost 20 years. Says owner Mark Pickard, “We create value-added ingredients and make the link with the food manufacturers.” InfraReady technology uses infrared energy and vibration to pre-cook the grain, using no additives other than water. The final product is softer, cooks in less time, and has a roasted flavour. While they have almost 300 products made from over 60 raw ingredients sourced from around the world, they are most excited about one developed right here in Saskatoon. AnthoGrain™ is a variety of purple wheat developed by Dr. Pierre Hucl, a wheat breeder at the Crop Development Centre at the University of Saskatchewan. (The U of S has also partnered with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's Guelph Food Research Centre, with Dr. Elsayed Abdelaal contributing to research). Earlier varieties of purple wheat were noted for containing anthocyanins, a powerful anti-oxidant that is found in blueberries and red grapes.

The new variety contains twice as many anthocyanins as the original. Bill Hetland of Hetland Seeds, a partner with InfraReady, says, “We’re on the verge of launching a non-GMO grain with substantial health benefits. There hasn’t been a link between whole grain and anti-oxidants—until now.”Purple-Wheat-300.  “Basically, we have the opportunity to introduce a ‘new and improved’ product,” explains Pickard. The team relied on the Canadian International Grains Institute and the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals to conduct research on the wheat. There is still more research to be done—it appears that when the wheat is sprouted, the anti-oxidant levels are enhanced. Confirming the enhancement and quantifying it are next on the research agenda. AnthoGrain™ development involves the InfraReady technology, Hetland’s pedigreed seed production process, and an overseas marketing presence through Spectrum Ingredients in Singapore. Asian markets have fewer limitations on health claims that can be made on food packaging. A purple wheat noodle prototype claims to have three times the anti-oxidants of red grapes in an 85g serving. The great potential for success seems to be equally balanced with challenges to overcome. “It’s all about the market,” says Hetland. “Saskatchewan has world class network of seed breeders. We can grow anything and produce a top quality certified seed. But then we have to find the markets for it.” Pickard adds that while AnthoGrain™ product prototypes have attracted the attention of the R&D departments of major North American multi-nationals, there is still a question of whether there will be interest from the marketing departments. “Things that support health and wellness and have an exotic appeal are popular,” he explains, “but it’s a challenge to educate the consumer.” The team has worked with the Saskatchewan Food Industry Development Centre (Food Centre) to explore the possibility of creating snack foods with enhanced health properties, but that leads to another hurdle: competing with the price point of corn. It appears their best bet is to target higher value markets, where people care about food safety and enhanced health benefits, and are willing to pay for a product made from certified non-GMO specialty grain. AnthoGrain™ is currently in the seed multiplication phase.

The next step will be contracting acreage to grow the grain, and trying to match production to market demand. In the meantime, other seed developers have been approaching InfraReady Products with other purple grains; corn, barley and rice have been submitted for consideration. “The world is our grocery store,” says Pickard. Raw materials can come from anywhere, but the value-added product comes from InfraReady. “In the past in Saskatchewan, we have been good at producing high quality raw materials for export, but there’s still a lot of growth potential in value-added products.” While Hetland claims, “It all starts with the seed,” the final outcome could be anything from bread to noodles to dramatically coloured vodka. All of these products are currently under consideration, offering a high quality product as well as added health benefits. “My hope,” says Hetland, “is that AnthoGrain™ is the wheat of the future. Someday I hope we have one million acres under production.”

InfraReady Products website