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Bushels of promise

The hottest value-added opportunities emerging today may come in the tiniest packages.

Little seeds from the cuphea plant, for example, encapsulate valuable oils that give candy coatings a smooth texture and improve the flavor of chewing gum. Beta glucans extracted from oat and barley hulls may boost the immune system and lower cholesterol. Silky starch granules extracted from amaranth may replace fat as well as boost the protein and antioxidants in cookies and crackers.

Grain components such as these could potentially bring millions of dollars into Minnesota’s agricultural economy, according to Charan Wadhawan, AURI cereal scientist.

In November, Wadhawan launched a survey of 11 grains that are or could be grown in Minnesota. All have components suitable for “functional foods” – regular food products with medicinal ingredients – or nutraceuticals in capsule, concentrate or other supplement forms.

“Consumers are choosing more food products that have health benefits. The market is increasing every year,” says Wadhawan.

The study, completed in May by food nutrition scientist Triveni Shukla of the Food, Research and Innovation Enterprises in Wisconsin, includes extensive information on each grain – including global production, markets, functional traits, production and processing issues, new developments and opportunities.

“We wanted to get a grasp on the latest and greatest – to see what’s out there in the public domain and gather it under one document,” says Michael Sparby, AURI project director. The study did not include the functional traits of corn and soybeans “because we felt there was so much available already that we could tap into.”

AURI’s next step, Wadhawan says, is to set priorities with the help of farmers, processors and sellers who will be invited to a presentation of the study’s findings this summer.

After determining the best opportunities, “we’ll see what is needed,” Wadhawan says. It might be breeding to increase a crop’s concentration of a high-value component. Or if a variety already has a high concentration of value, “we’ll focus on developing products.”

Wadhawan says AURI will identify producer-owned co-ops and companies interested in carrying out projects in “functional” foods markets.

Some of the grains surveyed are familiar Minnesota crops – spring wheat, barley, oats, wild rice, dry edible beans and sunflowers. Others have only a small presence – amaranth, buckwheat, flax, canola and cuphea, which is not yet grown commercially in the United States.

Following are summaries of the uncommon grains surveyed. The next Ag Innovation News issue will explore unusual traits of common Minnesota grains.