According to the Whole Grains Council’s website, barley is one of the more important grains when it comes to the world’s food supply – fourth in fact after wheat, rice, and corn – making it something of a superfood.
Barley is a very nutritious grain, and has been studied extensively for its role in heart health. It’s one of the few whole grains that have been granted the claim that it can help to reduce the risk for coronary heart disease by the US FDA (Food and Drug Administration) because there are several studies showing strong support for its role in cardiovascular health.
Note that barley does contain gluten, and so should be traded for a gluten-free grain for those who are sensitive.
Barley is the heaviest hitter when it comes to fiber content. On average, barley is about 17% fiber; in comparison, brown rice is about 3.5% fiber, corn about 7%, oats 10%, and wheat 12%. Unlike other whole grains where the bulk of the fiber is found in the outer bran, the fiber in barley is found throughout the grain, so that even more polished versions like ‘pearl’ barley, which is missing some or all of its bran layer, will still have more fiber than other polished grains. If your goal is to eat a truly whole grain, be sure to choose ‘hulled’ barley.
Nutrients per 1 cup / 157 g cooked barley (equal to 4¾ Tbsp. / 55 g dry)*
*Source: USDA Nutrient Database
Health Benefits of Barley
Scientific research studies have found several key advantages to consuming barley.
Cholesterol reduction and heart health: Barley has been suggested to reduce cholesterol due to a type of soluble fiber called beta glucan; this fiber helps to specifically lower LDL cholesterol. This may contribute to prevention of cardiovascular diseases and protection of heart health.
Weight management: The soluble fiber content of barley may help with weight loss and weight management by increasing satiety, the sense of feeling fuller longer, which may help you to eat less over the long run.
Bowel health: Because of barley’s fiber content, it’s a great food to help promote regularity and healthy bowels by adding bulk to stool and decreasing the transit time, the time needed for food to pass through the digestive tract. Fiber is also good for the bowel in another way: by helping to promote the growth of healthy bacteria that live in our gut. Some of the fiber acts as a prebiotic, a food source for bacteria, allowing them to reproduce. As the bacteria feed on the fiber, they produce a type of fatty acid called butyric acid which is used as a fuel source for the cells our large intestine helping to maintain a healthy bowel. This helps to promote overall health and well-being, including through supporting insulin sensitivity and control of inflammation, and to keep our immune system strong.
Diabetes: Regular consumption of whole grains, including barley, has been shown to lower the risk for type 2 diabetes. In addition to basic nutrients such as magnesium and chromium, two minerals that are essential for insulin sensitivity and glucose (blood sugar) metabolism, barley is a source of phytonutrients such as ferulic acid and phenolic acids also shown to benefit glycemic control and diabetes prevention.
In addition, because barley is high in soluble fiber, it may help to better balance blood sugar levels helping to prevent highs and lows. Research has shown that diets high in both total fiber and soluble fiber help to stabilize blood sugar in those with diabetes and barley delivers on the fiber front.
Cancer risk: Barley contains lunasin, a protein-related compound found to have anti-cancer activity in scientific research, attributed to anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Barley’s beta-glucan is also suggested to be protective, having shown positive results in both relevant animal and early human studies.
Before cooking barley, it’s a good idea to rinse it (as with all whole grains). For cooking, the general rule is to use a ratio of one part barley to three-and-a-half parts of liquid (water or broth). Bring the liquid to a boil, add the barley, and once the liquid has come to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer; pearled barley takes about one hour, hulled barley about 90 minutes.
Cooked barley has a light, grainy taste and makes a unique hot breakfast cereal similar in consistency and texture to rice pudding, and can be sweetened with a little coconut sugar or inulin sweetener, another source of beta-glucan. Barley can also be cooked as a savory side dish, and used in recipes where rice is called for – it can be cooked into a pilaf-like dish, added to soups and stews, or served cold as a salad. You can even get the benefits of barely using barley flour in baking.
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Health Canada. Summary of Health Canada’s Assessment of a Health Claim about Barley Products and Blood Cholesterol Lowering. 2012.
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Talati R, Baker WL, Pabilonia MS, White CM, Coleman CI. The effects of barley-derived soluble fiber on serum lipids. Ann Fam Med. 2009;7:157-163.
NUTRA ingredients-usa.com. FDA confirms barley/heart health claim. 2006.
Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus
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Good to know things! I am in the process of trying to lower my cholesterol and will definitely add barley to my diet. Thank you for the tip.
Unfortunately I have coeliac disease and barley has a more dramatic effect on me than either wheat or Rye. Is there an alternative ‘healthy’ grain and how do I cook it?
Very interesting. I will look for hulled barley next time I go shopping. Thanks a lot for the information.
What about oats and oatmeal? I live in Scotland and we eat mostly porridge and home made oatcakes for breakfast, and I know that it is good food but I do not see much about oats in your promos! In the US I think it is known as steel cut oats. Please confirm its efficacy. GavinMoncrieff