In my last article I explored the consumer trends that are affecting the food sector and need to be considered a key driver of a national food strategy for Canada. I also tried to group the many consumer food trends into a manageable few groupings of those trends. I said I would break this overview down to a “division,” or sector, level. Let’s start by looking at the grains division.
Grains are a major division of the Canadian agri-food sector and include major crops such as wheat, corn, barley, oats and rye. There are also a large number of smaller volume crops that have some specialized, and often interesting, uses but are not grown in huge volumes in Canada at this time. These include crops such as triticale, buckwheat, kamut, spelt and quinoa.
The primary use of virtually all of these crops is for human food. The exception is corn, the uses of which are largely non-food. It is used principally for livestock feed, ethanol production, and as a chemical feedstock for a variety of products such as plastics and fabrics. Almost all of the other grains are also used to some degree for non-food uses, mostly livestock feed. We will focus on the human food use.
Grains are well accepted by consumers, with the approval of dietitians, nutritionists and the medical profession as having some good health benefits, particularly as plant-based sources of protein, and other benefits. Since I’m neither a food scientist nor a nutritionist, I’ll leave it at that. But grains are considered an important element of a healthy diet.
Most of the grain-based food uses fall into the baked goods sector of food processing, which includes bread and bakery products; cookie and cracker manufacturing; flour mixes and dough manufacturing; flour mixes and dough manufacturing; and dry pasta manufacturing. Grains also end up in snack food manufacturing and the brewing and distilling sectors.
Canada’s strengths in grains
So, taking a strategic planning approach, what are Canada’s strengths in grains? Well, we have a large geography well suited to growing grains competitively – largely in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, but also in the other provinces to a slightly lesser degree. Canadian grains are well known and respected by food processors, both in Canada and abroad. We are a large exporter of grains and grain-based products, and we can grow a wide variety of grains.
What weaknesses might we have? Well, we are in the top six or seven countries globally in production of most of the major grains, so we have strong competition from abroad. And we export many of our grains at a higher ranking than our growth ranking. But I don’t see other significant weaknesses as a sector.
Are there challenges that we face other than foreign competition? One key area is the growing health concerns with regard to gluten intolerance, not just celiac disease, but other forms of intolerance to gluten by the body.
What about the opportunities for Canadian grains? Well, let’s look at those consumer groups we listed in the last article – Foodies, Healthies, Greenies, Speedies and Cheapies – and see how grain-based food products come across to them.
- Barley has just been approved by Health Canada for a health claim that barley consumption helps to reduce blood cholesterol. That should certainly have great appeal to the Healthies and probably the population in general. Perhaps the bakery sector can expand its use of barley.
- Grains, especially in whole-grain form, create some very interesting and tasty food products that Foodies find very appealing. We have seen a huge shift over time from, say “white bread,” to whole grain breads and other cookies, crackers, pastas and snack foods. Foodies are also often interested in ethnic cuisines, many of which have some interesting “Foodie-style” foods that could be expanded in Canadian food processing. Continued innovation in these foods should lead to even more growth.
- The Greenies and the Healthies are convinced that plant-based protein is a more sustainable and healthier source of protein than animal-based protein. So focusing on higher-protein products made from grains should have good appeal there.
- The Cheapies are always concerned about the cost of their food. Here again, grains provide a healthy and, depending on their formats, inexpensive protein source versus animal-based protein products. So perhaps there is opportunity to grow the grain business with some focus on lower-priced food products as well.
- And then there are the smaller crops we mentioned. Quinoa is now recognized as a very healthy grain. Interestingly, it is currently in expansion mode in Canada as it can be grown competitively in cooler areas than most other grains, and that is causing growers in those areas, the “fringe agricultural growing areas,” to consider it an option. Processors are also using quinoa, often imported, more and more to create interesting and healthy products. The same applies to some extent to kamut (which is very high in protein), triticale and spelt.
I could go on some more on the consumer trends and the grains sector, but those are some of the key opportunities that I see, and I’m sure there are more. We’ll look at another sector in the next article. Bottom line…there is great opportunity for the grains 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]