Information for Wheat-Allergic Individuals - Canary Seed

What is canary seed?

Canary seed is a cereal obtained from the seed heads of the plant Phalaris canariensis L., which is a member of the Poaceae family. The common cereal crops wheat, barley, rye and oat also belong to the Poaceae family of plants. There are various cultivars of canary seed but none have historically been used in food in Canada. However, glabrous (hairless) hull varieties of brown and yellow coloured annual canary seed were recently developed with the intent of processing the hulled kernels (groats) into various ingredients (e.g., whole meal flour, flakes) for human food use.

Why did Health Canada evaluate the safety of canary seed?

Canary seed has not previously been used as a food for human consumption and has no documented history of safe use as a food for human consumption and as such was considered a "novel food". Novel foods, which are defined in the Canadian Food and Drug Regulations, must undergo a full pre-market safety evaluation and be shown to be safe prior to being approved for sale in Canada. Health Canada's safety assessment of glabrous (hairless) hull varieties of brown and yellow coloured annual canary seed identified no safety concerns associated with food uses of these varieties of canary seed for the general population. Canary seed does not contain gluten and therefore may have uses in composite foods that are marketed as gluten-free to those with celiac disease. However, while canary seed is considered safe for the general population, anyone selling canary seed should place the following statement on the product label: "May not be suitable for consumers with a wheat allergy".

Why is canary seed required to have the statement "May not be suitable for consumers with a wheat allergy"?

Information provided during the pre-market safety evaluation of this novel food indicated that there was a specific protein present in canary seed that was similar to a protein found in wheat. While there is no conclusive evidence that someone with wheat allergy would have an adverse reaction if they consume canary seed, this possibility could not be completely excluded. For this reason, the statement "may not be suitable for consumers with a wheat allergy" will need to appear on the label of pre-packaged canary seed, and prepackaged foods produced using canary seed as an ingredient, to inform wheat allergic consumers. As such, it would be inappropriate for canary seed, or foods containing canary seed, to carry a wheat-free claim.

What is the difference between gluten-free and wheat-free?

Gluten-free foods are made for individuals with celiac disease or those who have to avoid gluten for some other medical reason. A gluten-free claim on a food means that the food has been manufactured in a way that ensures that either it is free of gluten or it contains such low levels of gluten (20 ppm or less) that it would be safe for those with celiac disease to consume, therefore meeting the health and safety intent of Canada's gluten-free regulations (Section B.24.018 of the Canadian Food and Drug Regulations).

For example, oats are permitted to make gluten-free claims under specific conditions as outlined in the Health Canada document Gluten-free labelling claims for products containing specially produced "gluten-free oats".

Wheat-free foods are marketed to individuals with wheat allergy. A wheat-free claim on a food means that the food is safe for someone with a wheat allergy to consume. Health Canada has not identified threshold concentrations of wheat in foods that could be safe for individuals with wheat allergy to consume. Therefore, a food with a wheat-free claim on the label is expected to have no detectable wheat protein in it.

A food that meets the requirements to make a gluten-free claim is not necessarily also wheat-free because other proteins from wheat (that are not gluten) could still be present in the food. Similarly, a food that is wheat-free is not necessarily gluten-free because a wheat-free food could contain other sources of gluten besides wheat.

Why is canary seed allowed to carry a gluten-free claim if it may not be suitable for individuals with wheat allergy?

Evidence obtained during the novel food pre-market safety evaluation indicated that there were no proteins in canary seed that were similar to the gluten proteins found in wheat, rye and barley. The protein found in canary seed that was similar to a wheat protein was not similar to wheat gluten but rather another type of protein found in wheat.

Since there are no gluten proteins found in canary seed, it can be safely consumed by individuals with celiac disease as long as it is produced in such a way as to avoid cross-contamination with a gluten source.

Therefore, the label of a pre-packaged canary seed ingredient is allowed to carry a gluten-free claim as long as the canary seed ingredient meets the requirements of Section B.24.018 of the Food and Drug Regulations (section B.24.018 governs the use of gluten-free claims in Canada). Further information on the application of B.24.018 is found in the document Health Canada's Position on Gluten-Free Claims.

What is the difference between wheat allergy and celiac disease?

While both wheat allergy and celiac disease involve the immune system, there is a significant difference between a reaction to gluten in an individual with celiac disease and an allergic reaction to wheat.

The immune system of an individual with a wheat allergy reacts abnormally to proteins from wheat. Upon exposure to wheat protein, the wheat allergic individual will have an IgE-mediated allergic reaction involving acute symptoms that can have a potential severity similar to that of other allergic food reactions. The proteins found in wheat that can cause this reaction include albumin, globulin, gliadin and glutenin (the last two are gluten proteins). The most severe type of allergic reaction is called anaphylaxis, which can be fatal.

Celiac disease or gluten-sensitive enteropathy is an inherited condition triggered by the consumption of cereal grains containing gluten proteins. The immune system of a person with celiac disease reacts negatively to the presence of gluten in the diet causing inflammatory damage to the inner lining of the small bowel. This reduces the person's ability to absorb such nutrients as iron, folate, calcium, Vitamin D, protein, fat and other food compounds. The gluten-containing grains which provoke negative effects in individuals with celiac disease include the different species of wheat (e.g., durum, spelt, kamut), barley, rye, and their cross-bred hybrids (e.g., triticale, which is a cross between wheat and rye).

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