Food In Canada


Building a national food strategy: Consumer trends and the oilseeds and pulses division

Gary Fread looks at the impact of consumer trends on Canada’s oilseeds and pulses sector

In the last two articles I explored the consumer trends that are affecting the food industry and need to be considered as key drivers of a national food strategy for Canada. I also tried to arrange the many consumer food trends into a manageable few groupings of those trends. In the last article I started to break this overview down to a “division,” or sector, level and focused on the grains division. So, let’s keep going and look at the oilseeds and pulses division.


Oilseeds are a major sector of the Canadian agri-food industry and include some major crops such as canola, soy and flax. There are also a few smaller-volume crops that have some specialized uses but which are not grown in huge volumes in Canada at this time. These include crops such as safflower, sunflower and mustard seeds. I won’t put much focus on them for now. Pulses are a much smaller sector and include dry beans and peas, chickpeas, and lentils, and we will look at them.


The primary use of most of these crops is for human food. However, oilseeds do have fairly strong non-food uses as well, such as ethanol (canola) and biodiesel (soy), as well as some very specialized non-food uses in the areas of plastics, fabrics and others. All are used to a fair degree in the livestock feed industry too. Pulses are principally used for human food, but do have some uses in livestock feed. And, of course, pulses and soy are used in crop rotations because they add nitrogen back to the soil. We will focus on the human food uses.


Healthy and versatile


We are fortunate to be able to grow oilseeds that are considered pretty healthy and have some different types of food uses, and this makes them fairly appealing. Virtually all are used principally as oils, but after extracting the oils the protein meal that remains also has food uses. Pulses, too, are healthy foods with a bit more focused set of uses. So we have a good number of reasons for oilseeds and pulses to be strong sectors of the Canadian agri-food industry.


So, taking a strategic planning approach, what are Canada’s strengths in oilseeds and pulses? Well, we have a large geography well suited to growing them competitively – oilseeds largely in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, but also Ontario and Quebec, especially soy, and flax in areas of the Atlantic provinces. Canadian grains are well known and respected by food processors, both in Canada and abroad. We export a significant amount of canola, soy and flax.


Just as with grains, there doesn’t appear to be any real weaknesses associated with the oilseed and pulse sector in Canada.


Are there challenges that we face other than, perhaps, foreign competition? Again, I don’t see any major ones. In this sector, we have generally healthy crops that are a desirable part of the cropping cycle for growers and of the human diet. There aren’t any major concerns about any of these crops. If anything, we have a marketing issue to deal with in that consumers may need some “educating” on these crops.


What about the opportunities for Canadian oilseeds and pulses? Well, let’s look at those consumer groups we listed in the last article – Foodies, Healthies, Greenies, Speedies and Cheapies – and see how oilseed/pulse-based food products come across to them.


  • Canola is very well established in the grocery aisle as bottled vegetable oil. Its largest competitor for shelf space appears to be olive oil, which is more expensive. There are also some specialty flavoured oils for special cooking purposes, some made from other types of oils, such as sunflower. Perhaps there is an opportunity to get into some of these specialty flavours using canola oil and appeal more to the Foodies among consumers. So with canola oil we have a big Canadian market for a healthy oil that appeals to the general consumer base.


  • Flax has had a health claim approved by Health Canada stating that flaxseed can help to lower blood cholesterol. This is an opportunity that will find much interest among the Healthies and among consumers generally.


  • There are other flax and health tie-ins. For example, I now buy a whole-grain bread made with a significant amount of both brown and golden flax, the label of which says it is a good source of omega-3 polyunsaturates. Flax is also high in protein and fibre. Appeal to the Healthies? I think so.


  • Soy probably has the highest percentage of its production going to non-food uses, and that trend continues to grow. However, there are food opportunities that should be addressed. Soy for food is mostly used for soy milk, tofu, tempeh and other Asian foods which are a small niche market in Canada appealing a lot to the Newbies (recent immigrants), although there are also some export opportunities.


  • And because soy is a complete protein from plants, soy is also used as a meat substitute. This is happening as the vegetarians and flexitarians look for alternative protein sources. What else could soy be used for? How about high-energy protein drinks? Healthier high-protein snack foods? That would appeal to the Healthies.


  • Pulse crops are high in protein, carbohydrates, fibre, minerals and vitamins (folate). Consumption of pulses as part of a regular diet may offer numerous health benefits, including reduced risk of diabetes and heart diseases. As the concern about gluten intolerance has increased, there is more interest on the part of consumers and baking companies to look at applications where pulses could be used. This could increase the pulse market in categories like breads, cakes, snack foods, sweets or condiments.


  • The Greenies also see plant-based sources of protein as an environmentally superior way of growing protein for human use versus animal-based. I don’t want to get into that argument, but it’s worth noting that the demand and interest exists.


Again, I could go on some more on the oilseed and pulse sector and consumer trends, but those are some of the key opportunities that I see, and I’m sure there are more, but I will stop here and we’ll look at another sector in the next article. Bottom line; there are good opportunities for the oilseeds and pulses sector.


Gary Fread is president of Fread & Associates Ltd., consultants to the food industry. He has spent 25 years in management positions in the food processing industry, with a background in sales, logistics, purchasing and technical areas. He has worked with Procter & Gamble, Campbell Soup and Morrison Lamothe, and is the past president and CEO of the Guelph Food Technology Centre. He is active in many food industry associations and organizations, serving on the boards of several. Contact him at [email protected]

Gary Fread

Gary Fread

Gary is president of Fread & Associates Ltd., consultants to the food industry.
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