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Sask.-grown purple wheat holds promise as grain with health benefits and flash of colour

Stumbletown Distilling’s bottles of purple wheat vodka have striking labels to match the colour in their main ingredient — not that you’d be able to guess the contents were anything out of the ordinary by looking at it.

Clear as water, this Saskatoon distillery’s product is made entirely from purple wheat grown in the province and was the first in the world made from the grain, according to owner Craig Holland. 

The little-known variety of wheat makes the alcohol a little sweeter, with hints of chocolate, vanilla and Saskatoon berry. That netted it a Platinum SIP Award in 2019, the highest international consumer award it could receive.

Stumbletown’s tasting room is closed right now because of COVID-19, but for those eager to support local, you can still pick it up or order online. Holland said the business’s mission of creating a hyper local product is part of what drew them to purple wheat. 

“Once people hear the story and realize that we’re using that grain, not only because it makes a great product but because it was developed in [Saskatoon] … people seem to get behind us a lot more,” he said. 

Stumbletown Distilling in Saskatoon debuted with their first product less than two years ago. It’s made 100 per cent of purple wheat, grown and processed in Saskatchewan. (Alex Soloducha/CBC)

Purple wheat hasn’t made it big as an ingredient in Canadian products quite yet, finding more of its success overseas, but those studying and marketing its health properties — and those growing it on Saskatchewan soil — see great potential in the violet plant with flare.

A product 20 years in the making

The province’s only two registered purple wheat varieties were created at the University of Saskatchewan by Pierre Huckl, a professor and the interim director of the Crop Development Centre.

In the 1990s, he was looking at the colour purple as a potential marker for feed wheat or ethanol production, but later focused on its potential as a food ingredient. Huckl said the source of the purple colour traces back to tetraploid wheat that has grown in the highlands of Ethiopia for thousands of years, and that New Zealand has been using it in multi-grain bread for about 70 already. 

University of Saskatchewan professor Pierre Huckl researches genetics and breeding of wheat for the short-season areas of Western Canada. He began working on a variety of purple wheat in the 1990s but due to red tape, he didn’t get to release it until 2012. (Gloria Gingera, Department of Plant Sciences, University of Saskatchewan)

After the creation of a new general wheat class, Huckl was able to release it in 2012. 

“In plant breeding, and research in general, 95-99 per cent of what you do does not work and plant breeding is all about looking at lots of material and throwing most of it out,” he said. “It’s kind of gratifying to see that something actually worked out.”

In Canada, the first purple wheat was released by Laval University in Quebec in 1980.

Huckl said the Saskatchewan varieties had to be created to withstand the equivalent of the climate in western Siberia and an active growing season of about 90 days.

People studying and marketing the health properties of purple wheat — and those growing it on Saskatchewan soil — see great potential in the violet plant with flare. 4:47

Studies on the health impacts of purple wheat

Mark Pickard, president of Infraready Products in Saskatoon, which has done most of the marketing for purple wheat, said the original attraction to the grain was its standout colour. It was later determined the colour comes from pigments known as anthocyanins, which are antioxidants also found in fruits and vegetables like beets and Saskatoon berries.

Infraready helped initiate a collaboration between Health Canada, the University of Guelph and the University of Saskatchewan. 

(Hailley Furkalo/CBC News Graphics)

Elsayed Abdelaal, senior research scientist with Agri-Food Canada in Guelph, Ont., has completed two studies on purple wheat to see if its health qualities are preserved during processing.

In the first study, Abdelaal and his research team fed purple wheat granola bars and crackers to healthy individuals. In the second, they picked participants who were determined to be at risk for certain health conditions.

Then, they looked at markers for stress and inflammation. He found that foods with purple wheat can reduce inflammation and are better than foods with regular wheat at lowering blood glucose. 

He said food does not work as a cure, but it can help with disease prevention.

Growing new variety results in higher return for farmers

There are also benefits for the farmers who plant purple wheat in their fields. Purple wheat is a Canadian Western Special Purpose Wheat, so there is a discount of 25-30 per cent over hard red spring wheat, while the yield is about 15 per cent more.

Bill Hetland has reaped those benefits. He was one of the first people to grow purple wheat in Saskatchewan, near Naicam.

Bill Hetland from Naicam was one of the first people to grow purple wheat in the province. This is one of his crops of purple wheat, which he says only has a slight tinge of violet to it. In contrast, the grain is a rich purple. (Photo submitted by Bill Hetland)

When he started out, the wheat was a little more disease prone but it fared well with seed treatments, and since then, Huckl has developed more resistant varieties. His 2018 strain is also a brighter purple. 

“You can pick a kernel out in 10,000 kernels just right away,” said Hetland. “In the field you couldn’t really tell, unless you get up close, you can see a bit of a purple tinge to it. But it’s very it’s a nice crop to handle because it is short, so it is easy to harvest.”

Because Hetland’s farm grows other types of wheat and they don’t want cross contamination, they now contract purple wheat out to other producers. 

Hetland said purple wheat is still a small crop in Saskatchewan, but it’s slowly growing.

“It’d be great to see 500,000 or a million acres down the road,” he said.

More than a shot of vodka

Leaders in the agri-food industry have to predict food trends years down the road so that supply will meet demand. That’s because growers don’t want to end up with ten bins full of purple wheat they can’t sell.   

Pickard said more purple wheat is exported out of Canada than is consumed in the county.

“Other countries and other companies read the science, which is very positive, and it encourages them to do product development and then take it to the market,” he said. 

The grain has gotten the most attention in southeast Asia, where it’s very popular in noodle products. 

But back in Saskatoon, Stumbletown Distillery isn’t the only business jumping on the hype.

Purple wheat flour only has a slight hint of purple, but the colour in food can be dramatic depending on how it’s prepared. (Alex Soloducha/CBC)

Bryn Rawlyk, owner of the Night Oven bakery, received some purple wheat from local producers and milled it into flour. He incorporated the flour and his organic white flour into his standard sourdough starter made with red fife flour. The purple wheat bread turned out even better than he thought it would.

“You never know if the heat is going to degrade the colouring and the final product, like with beets or things like,” Rawlyk said. “So we were really excited when we cut open to it and then it actually became this nice purple product in the end.”

Bryn Rawlyk, owner of the Night Oven bakery in Saskatoon, received some purple wheat from local producers and milled it into flour at his bakery. He says he was surprised that the bread itself came out purple, as most natural colourants fade in the oven. (Alex Soloducha/CBC)

Rawlyk said the bakery has offered it some Saturdays and customers loved it, not just for the colour but for the added subtle flavour. 

You can also find purple wheat bread baked at Co-op. It’s been used in cookies and multi-grain crackers. 

The future of purple wheat

Despite Abdelaal’s research for the Government of Canada, companies that use purple wheat in their products cannot make health claims on their packages. For that, it would need official regulatory approval through Health Canada.

Abdelaal said he wants to explore more uses for purple wheat in food and non-food applications. He said the pigment could be used in skincare or cosmetics one day. 

Elsayed Abdelaal, senior research scientist with Agri-Food Canada in Guelph, has completed two studies on purple wheat to see if its healthy qualities are preserved during processing. (CBC News)

At this point, purple wheat is still a niche product, and Pickard said he doesn’t really expect that to change, but he thinks there is potential for more uses. 

“Let your imagination go wild,” Pickard said. “Why not puff purple wheat breakfast cereal? Why not purple wheat fish crackers? Why not purple wheat pasta made in Saskatchewan?

Huckl is still testing variations at the U of S, now with a focus on improving the baking quality of purple wheat. 

He said the next variety is about five years from approval.

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