01/12/2015 05:00 EST | Updated 03/13/2015 05:59 EDT

Why Corn Smut Could Be Good For You

** FOR USE WITH AP LIFESTYLES ** An ear of corn infected with corn smut is seen in this undated photo.  While not a pretty sight to corn growers, corn smut has long been a delicacy in Mexico and its popularity is beginning to spread northward. (AP Photo/Lee Reich)
** FOR USE WITH AP LIFESTYLES ** An ear of corn infected with corn smut is seen in this undated photo. While not a pretty sight to corn growers, corn smut has long been a delicacy in Mexico and its popularity is beginning to spread northward. (AP Photo/Lee Reich)
At first glance, there is nothing appetizing about huitlacoche, a corn fungus that North American farmers tend to view as a disease.

Ugly and grey, the engorged kernels look like a genetic mistake, and do nothing to tempt a diner.

But overcome their appearance and savour their mushroomy flavour and extra protein — as Mexicans have for hundreds of years — and maybe those kernels full of of corn smut are the genesis of a new delicacy for Canadian food producers and health-conscious consumers.

Barry Saville is working on that hypothesis, and the chair of the forensic science program at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., now finds himself at the forefront as Canadian researchers and agricultural producers looking for new products.

"We think we could probably grow [huitlacoche] out as a niche market where you're looking at farmers' markets initially and then build it up," he says.

Canadian producers looking to tap fresh markets now have all sorts of unlikely new crops in the mix — ranging from farm-grown shrimp to haskaps, a berry of Russian and Japanese origin that thrives in colder climes.

In Ontario alone, the provincial agriculture ministry says growers are trying to make money from lavender, sea buckthorn, goji, quinoa, hops, bitter melon, Jersualem artichoke and woodland herbs such as goldenseal.

For Saville and huitlachoche — which is also known as corn truffle or corn mushroom —​ there may be some distance to go in building that market.

Tasty with eggs

Huitlacoche is really corn smut, a fungus that occurs naturally here and one that producers of sweet and field corn don't want in their crops.

In fact, Saville actually spends most of his research time trying to find ways to stop such fungi from infecting plants.

But when he travelled to Mexico not long ago, Saville was served huitlacoche. He enjoyed it in side dishes and found it especially tasty when served with eggs in a breakfast wrap.

"I thought, 'My, this is interesting,' so the question would be can we produce it here and is there a market."

He's spent three years looking for answers under a $170,000 grant from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

So far, there's reason for optimism, as researchers have been inoculating corn cobs with the fungus and harvesting them before spores could spread.

At least one organic farmer has sold huitlacoche at a farmers market. The La Hacienda restaurant in Peterborough has it in items on its menu.

"My customers look for it and they ask for things they figure we'll never have, but then they're shocked to hear we do," says owner and chef Sandra Arciniega.

Saville and his researchers have produced huitlacoche on a half-acre plot, harvesting it manually.

That kind of manual labour means relatively high production costs. But there is also the potential for higher economic return. A cob of sweet corn might sell for 50 cents. A huitlacoche cob might reap $8.

Huitlacoche could also prove attractive to health-conscious consumers.

"When the fungus infects the kernel, the now-infected material produces two more amino acids than corn itself, so huitlachoe actually has a more complete protein source than corn," says Saville.

Unique flavour

Another crop being tested across Canada, and touted for its health potential, is the haskap, a member of the honeysuckle family native to northern Russia and northern Japan.

​"It makes a berry that's kind of like raspberry, blueberry, currant, but it's got its own different slant on the flavour," says Bob Bors, an assistant professor in the department of plant sciences at the University of Saskatchewan.

He estimates there are about 500 growers testing haskap production across the county.

"It's not something you can just pull up a pickup truck full of fruit and dump it off somewhere. You have to develop your markets. It's all brand new so there are many pioneers trying different techniques."

They do have one selling point in their favour, however. Bors says that becuase of its high antioxidants, the health value of haskaps beats that of blueberries, another more common fruit promoted for its potential to lower risks of certain diseases.

Being able to tout health benefits could prove particularly lucrative for food producers.

"Health is going to be one of the biggest drivers moving forward when it comes to innovation in food," says Sylvain Charlebois, a professor of food distribution and policy at the University of Guelph in southern Ontario.

"The other driver I would say would be the whole notion of sustainability, ethics … the morality of production.

"Those kinds of things really resonate more and more with consumers," he says, particularly those in their 20s and 30s, the so-called millennials who are "becoming more powerful as consumers. And so yes, the industry will need to adapt."

From hogs to shrimp

This agricultural adaptation can take many forms. Another example unfolding not far from Saville's corn plot is a former hog operation being transformed into a shrimp farm.

The Cocchio family in Trent Hills hopes some shrimp will be ready for shipment by the end of January. They're aiming for a full production run of 500 to 800 pounds a week in an operation considered the first of its kind in Ontario.

The family had been hog producers, but "went out of that business when the market was falling out," they said in an email.

The shrimp will come from a pathogen-free hatchery in Florida at the age of 12 days and will grow in concrete tanks in the former hog barns for about four months before reaching the target size of 20 shrimps per pound.

It hasn't always been an easy transition. Regulations had to change in Ontario to allow shrimp production, a process that took three years.

"Due to the fact that we are the first in Ontario, it has been hard to source many things that we need to run this operation," the Cocchios said, noting feed and equipment have to come from the U.S.

High-value market

Whatever challenges they face, they have a lot of potential customers close by.

"There's a large market in the Greater Toronto Area for live shrimp," says Steve Naylor, an OMAFRA aquaculture specialist.

Shrimp is also a high-value market, with some stores selling shrimp brought in primarily from the U.S for around $25 a pound.

"Right now, we're trucking for 24 hours live fish from the southern States into Ontario for our markets. We may as well have the economic development and wealth creation here," says Naylor.

More conversions like the Cocchios' are likely as agriculture adjusts to changing national and international markets.

"It's about adapting to the new normal," Charlebois says, who notes the economic uncertainties with more traditional commodities such as hogs.

"It's happening in different places and the key here is always to have a market, for one, build a competitive advantage, focusing on sustainability, health and logistics."


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