Canary seed: a novel cereal from the Canadian Prairies

Article prepared by:

Arzoo Sharma, Anna Chepurna, Dave Turnock, Jerry Kletke, and Marta Izydorczyk
GRL Program: Milling & Malting / Research on Barley and other Grains

Origin and development

Figure 1. Canary seed plant. Photo courtesy of Gloria Gingera, Crop Development Centre, University of Saskatchewan.
Figure 1. Canary seed plant. Photo courtesy of Gloria Gingera, Crop Development Centre, University of Saskatchewan.

Canary seed (Phalaris canariensis L.) is a cereal crop that belongs to the Poaceae family, which also includes common cereals like wheat, rye, barley and oats. Originally, the canary grass plant (Figure 1) was native to the Mediterranean region, but now it is grown commercially in several parts of the world, including Canada.

Traditionally, canary seeds were used exclusively as birdseed due to the presence of hair-like silica fibres, called trichomes, attached to the hulls (Figure 2A). These early ‘hairy’ varieties of canary seeds were not suitable for human consumption because the small hairs contaminated the hulled whole kernels (groats) during dehulling and were deemed hazardous and potentially carcinogenic to human health. The hairs also caused irritation to combine operators and grain handlers.

In the late 1990’s, Dr. Pierre Hucl, a canary seed breeder from the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Center (CDC), developed a hairless canary seed (cv. CDC Maria, variety registered in Canada in 1997) in which the trichomes were completely absent from the hull and glumes (Figure 2B). The new ‘hairless’, or glabrous, species was not only easier to handle, but could also be safely consumed and utilized by the food industry as a cereal grain.

In 2015, Health Canada and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe) status to glabrous canary seeds and approved them as a novel food product.

CGC’s position on canary seed

Canary seed is not currently included among the 20 grains officially regulated by the Canada Grain Act (CGA). The Canary Seed Development Commission of Saskatchewan made a formal request to the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and to the CGC to designate canary seed as an official grain under the CGA. The CGC developed a regulatory proposal that would make canary seed an official grain subject to all provisions of the CGA and the Canada Grain Regulations effective August 1, 2021. With this change, the Canadian Grain Commission would be responsible for the determination of the grade and dockage analysis of canary seed and producers would be protected under the Canadian Grain Commission’s Safeguards for Grain Farmers Program.

Figure 2A. SEM photomicrograph of hairy grain. Adapted from Abdel -Aal et al., 1997. With permission.
Figure 2A. SEM photomicrograph of hairy grain. Adapted from Abdel -Aal et al., 1997. With permission.
Figure 2B. SEM photomicrograph of hairless grain. Adapted from Abdel -Aal et al., 1997. With permission.
Figure 2B. SEM photomicrograph of hairless grain. Adapted from Abdel -Aal et al., 1997. With permission.
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