Although barley may not be as popular as other whole grains like oats, wheat, or even grain-of-the-moment quinoa, barley has some impressive health benefits. A very high fiber content, vitamins and minerals, antioxidants, heart health and diabetes protection are just some of the barley nutrition benefits that make it one of the best whole grain choices.
Barley is actually one of the oldest consumed grains in the world. It was a staple grain for peasants during medieval times for centuries and today is still included in the diet of many European, African, and Middle Eastern nations that have been eating barley for thousands of years.
Barley provides a range of important vitamins and minerals: fiber, selenium, B vitamins, copper, chromium, phosphorus, magnesium, niacin, and more. And when compared to many other grains, even other ancient whole-grains, barley is lower in fat and calories, but higher in dietary fiber and certain trace minerals. For example a one-cup serving of cooked barley has less calories, but more fiber, than an equal serving of quinoa, brown rice, amaranth, sorghum, millet or wild rice.
Barley Nutrition Facts
About one cup of cooked hulled barley, which is about equivalent to 1/3 cup uncooked, provides: (1)
- 217 Calories
- About 1 gram fat
- 10 grams fiber
- 7 grams protein
- 45 grams carbohydrates
- 1 mg manganese (60%)
- 23 mg selenium (42%)
- .3 mg copper (34%)
- .4 mg vitamin B1 (33%)
- 162 mg phosphorus (23%)
- 80 mg magnesium (20%)
- 8 mg vitamin B3 (18%)
To get the most benefits from barley nutrition, it’s recommended that you first soak and sprout hulled uncooked barley grains, or you can choose to buy sprouted barley flour for baking. Sprouting whole grains helps to unleash their nutrients, so that the body can actually absorb and use the various vitamins and minerals found within the grain.
This is because all whole grains contain certain antinutrients, like phytic acid for example, which bind to nutrients and make them very difficult to absorb. Soaking and sprouting grains, including hulled uncooked barley, can help to lower the level of antinutrients significantly, making grains more beneficial and also easier to digest. It can also reduce the amount of gluten present within barley to some degree.
Numerous studies have found that when grains are soaked and sprouted, improvements in digestibility and nutrient absorption are commonly seen and also vitamin, mineral, protein, and antioxidant levels are increased. (2, 3, 4) To sprout your own barley, you can soak whole, raw barley grains for 8-12 hours and then sprout them over the course of about 3 days. Or check out my Sprout Guide for a full list of how to soak and sprout seed-based foods.
Top Barley Health Benefits
1. High Source of Fiber
One of barley’s most noteworthy health benefits is its high fiber content. Each one-cup serving of barley provides approximately 6 grams of fiber. Most of the fiber found in barley is the insoluble type which aids in healthy digestion, glucose metabolism, and heart health. (5)
Consuming foods that are high in fiber also makes you feel fuller, since fiber expands within the digestive tract and takes up a high volume of space. This means you feel more satisfied after a meal, are better able to control blood sugar levels, and have less cravings.
2. Can Help Improve Digestion
Fiber also helps to fight constipation and diarrhea by forming bulk within the digestive tract, therefore regulating bowel movements. A 2003 study observed the effects of adding more barley to the diet of adult women and found that after 4 weeks, barley intake had beneficial effects on lipid metabolism and bowel function. (6)
Barley’s fiber is also important for maintaining a healthy balance of bacteria within the digestive tract. Another important and well-researched benefit of barley nutrition? Barley’s high supply of fiber may even be beneficial in preventing certain types of cancers within the digestive system, including colon cancer.
3. Helps with Weight Loss
Fiber provides volume to a healthy diet without any additional calories since the body cannot digest fiber. This makes the fiber found in barley beneficial for weight loss. A study in 2008 found that when adults added high amounts of barley’s beta gluten fiber to their diets for 6 weeks, their weight significantly decreased, as did their levels of hunger. (7)
And many other studies have found that compared to more refined grain products, like white bread for example, consuming whole grains like barley significantly reduces hunger levels and positively impacts metabolic responses to carbohydrates by absorbing starches at a slower pace. (8)
4. Helps Control Blood Sugar Levels
Barley nutrition can benefit blood sugar level management, making it a smart grain choice for those with diabetes or any form of metabolic syndrome because it helps to slow the rate at which sugar is released into the blood stream. (9)
Barley contains 8 essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein, as well as high amounts of soluble fiber which control insulin release in response to barley’s sugar in the form of carbohydrates.
Inside the cell walls of barley is a type of soluble fiber called beta-glucan. Beta-glucan is a viscous fiber, meaning our body cannot digest it and it moves through our digestive tract without being absorbed. As it does this it binds with water and other molecules within the digestive tract, slowing down the absorption of glucose (sugar) from food intake.
One animal study conducted in 2010 found that after rats were given high levels of barley for a 7 week period, the addition of barley helped reduce their weight, decreased hepatic lipid (fat) accumulation, and improved insulin sensitivity compared to the rats not consuming barley.
Because of its special fiber compounds, barley nutrition has even been found to help control blood sugar levels better than other whole grains, like oats for example. (10)
5. Helps Lower High Cholesterol
A diet rich in fiber has been correlated with a lower incidence of heart disease, partially due to its ability to help lower high cholesterol levels. Barley’s high source of insoluble fiber is mostly responsible for giving it is heart health benefits because it inhibits the amount of bad cholesterol that can be absorbed by the intestines. (11)
In a 2004 study, 28 men with high cholesterol levels were put on a diet containing high amounts of barley, with roughly 20% of overall calories coming from whole grain barley. After 5 weeks, total cholesterol, HDL “good” cholesterol, and triacylglycerols levels all showed significant improvements. Researchers concluded that by increasing soluble fiber through consumption of barley, as part of an overall healthy diet, people can reduce several important cardiovascular risk factors. (12)
Barley’s fiber helps to form a type of acid known as propionic acid which helps inhibit enzymes that are involved in the production of cholesterol by the liver. The fiber found in barley also provides beta glucan, a substance that is needed to bind bile in the digestive tract to cholesterol and therefore to help pull it through the colon and out of the body in stool.
6. Prevents Heart Disease
One of the biggest advantages of barley nutrition is that eating whole grains is correlated with improved heart health.
Barley contains certain nutrients including vitamin B3 niacin, vitamin B1 thiamine, selenium, copper, and magnesium which are useful in lowering cholesterol, high blood pressure, and other risk factors associated with heart disease. These minerals help to control the production and metabolism of cholesterol, prevent dangerous blood clotting, aid in arterial health and are crucial for nerve signaling functions that help control cardiovascular processes like heart rhythms.
Barley’s nutrients are especially useful in slowing the dangerous progression of atherosclerosis, a condition in which plaque builds up within arteries and can lead to heart disease, a heart attack, or stroke. Barley’s nutrients help blood vessels to remain clear, improving blood flow and reducing inflammation.
7. Provides Antioxidants
Barley benefits the body in many ways because it contains antioxidant phytonutrients known as lignans. Lignans are correlated with lower incidences of cancer and heart disease because they are helpful in reducing inflammation and fighting the toll that aging can have on the body.
The main type of lignan that is found in barley is called 7-hydroxymatairesinol. Studies have shown that this lignan may offer protection against cancer development and heart disease because it helps the body to metabolize bacteria and to sustain a healthy ratio of “good-to-bad” bacteria within the gut, reducing overall inflammation. (13)
The antioxidants found in barley help to boost serum levels of enterolactones, which is a compound that is associated with controlling hormone levels and therefore fighting hormone-related cancers, such as prostate and breast cancer.
8. High in Vitamins and Minerals
Some of the highlights of barley nutrition is that this whole grain is a good source of important nutrients including: selenium, magnesium, copper, niacin, thiamine and many other vital nutrients too.
Barley nutrition helps many functions due to its high mineral content. Copper for example is important for maintaining cognitive function into old age, supporting metabolism, the nervous system, and producing red blood cells. And selenium found in barley benefits your appearance by improving skin and hair health and supports a healthy metabolism. Selenium also works with vitamin E to fight oxidative stress.
Manganese found in barley is important for brain health and supporting the nervous system. One cup of cooked barley also provides 20% of your daily magnesium needs. Magnesium is needed for numerous important enzyme relations within the body, including the production and use of glucose. Magnesium also helps control muscle functioning, dilating blood vessels, and many more functions.
9. Protects Against Cancer
A diet that includes whole grains has been shown to protect against various forms of cancer, including breast, colon, and prostate cancers. Whole grains contain compounds that have the ability to fight free radical damage and inflammation including lignans, polyunsaturated fatty acids, oligosaccharides, plant sterols and saponins. (14)
These beneficial compounds have mechanistic effects that include binding to harmful carcinogens and removing them from the body. (15) They also help improve the environment of the gut and therefore boost immunity by helping with antioxidant and nutrient absorption.
Also Barley’s antioxidants, enterolactones, protect against all hormone-based types of cancer.
Barley & Gluten
Although barley has many health benefits, it also has some negative attributes that you should know about. Just like whole grain wheat and rye grains and seeds, barley naturally contains the protein gluten.
This means barley may not be a suitable grain for those with Celiac disease or gluten sensitivities. Again, these glutenous proteins can greatly be reduced by sprouting this grain, by fermenting it, or as a sourdough bread.
While gluten is difficult for many people to properly digest and can cause a range of reactions including malabsorption of nutrients, leaky gut syndrome, low energy levels, bloating, constipation, and many other symptoms. Although sprouting barley can help lower its gluten content, barley will still have gluten proteins intact even once sprouted and should be avoided by anyone with a known gluten allergy or intolerance.
If you have a sensitive digestive system, IBS, or signs of leaky gut syndrome, it may be smart to avoid barley and other grains, at least for a period of time to allow your gut to heal.
The same nutrients found in barley can be found in many vegetables and fruits, therefore barley and other grains are not entirely necessary in every healthy diet.
If you have no negative reactions to grains or gluten, then barley can be a beneficial part of your diet!
History of Barley
Barley is a member of the grass family and is one of the most popular types of cereal grains in the world. In a 2007 ranking of cereal crops grown around the world, barley was listed as the fourth largest produced grain worldwide, with about 136 million tons of barley produced every year! The largest producers of barley today are Russia, Germany, France, Canada, and Spain. In 2013 reports showed that barley was grown in over 100 nations worldwide.
Domesticated barley comes from the wild grass variety known as Hordeum vulgare spontaneum. It first was grown in grasslands and woodlands throughout parts of Western Asia and northeast Africa thousands of years ago. Researchers believe that barley was grown for food beginning in Mesopotamia from the second millennium BC onwards.
Barley and barley meal have been used in various European and Asian nations for centuries. Barley meal or flour is the base ingredient in a traditional porridge found in Scotland for example.
Barley meal has also been used to make “gruels”, another traditional type of porridge, in the Arab world and parts of the Middle East like Israel, Persia, Saudi Arabia for many years. Barley soup is traditionally eaten during Ramadan in Saudi Arabia and barley is included in cholent, a traditional Jewish stew that is often eaten on Sabbath. In Africa, barley is one of the major food crops that provides nutrients to impoverished populations.
Barley also has a long history of being used in alcoholic drinks, because some of the same special compounds that make barley nutrition so healthy, are also very favorable for fermentation.
Some of the sugars in barley are fermented and used to make beer and certain other types of alcohols, like whiskey. In the 15th the Reinheitsgebot law of the Holy Roman Empire allowed only barley to be the grain used for beer brewing.
In the 18th century, barley wine was created in England, Ireland, and Scotland and was loved as a type of strong beer made in the English brewing tradition. Alcoholic drinks made with barley were prepared by boiling barley in water, then mixing the barley water with white wine and other ingredients.
A high percentage of the barley grain grown around the world today is used to make barley into other products like alcohol or syrup. Sprouted barley is naturally high in maltose, which is a type of sugar that is used for various purposes. Maltose from barley is used to make malt syrups that serve as a natural sweetener.
How to Cook Barley
Barley is described as having a rich, nutty flavor and a dense, chewy texture. If you like the taste and texture of other ancient, whole grains like farro, buckwheat, or wheat berries, then you’ll likely enjoy barley too. Barley is a great addition to comfort foods like soups and stews, since it absorbs a lot of flavor and adds a filling, chewy element to dishes.
When buying barley, you want to look for 100% whole grain hulled or dehulled barley, but ideally not pearled barley. Pearled barley is more processed and refined, so it lacks some of the barley nutrition benefits described above. Hulled barley (or covered barley) is eaten after removing the inedible, fibrous, outer hull of the grains. Once removed, it is called “dehulled barley” but it still has its bran and germ intact which is where many of barley’s nutrients can be found.
Pearled barley on the other hand is dehulled barley which has been steam processed further to remove the bran. This reduces the nutrient content of barley and makes it a more processed product, often being used in many packed products including flours, flaked grains, or grits. Pearled barley will cook quicker because its bran has been removed, but this also removes nutrients and won’t provide as many benefits as hulled barley will.
Before cooking raw barley, rinse the grains thoroughly under running water. Make sure to remove any hulls or floating particles since these can carry bacteria. Cook barley using a ratio of one part barley to three parts boiling water or broth. This means you will add 1/3 cup barley to 1 cup of liquid when boiling the grains.
Bring both the cleaned grains and liquid to a boil and then lower the heat, allowing barley to simmer on a low heat setting until its tender and cooked through. Pearled barley usually takes about 1 hour of simmering to cook, while the preferred type of hulled barley takes about 1 ½ hours.
You can add more barley nutrition benefits to your diet by using hulled barley anywhere you’d normally use other whole grains- like quinoa, rice, or buckwheat for example. Try subbing in barley in some of these recipes using ancient whole grains, especially barley that’s been sprouted beforehand:
- For breakfast try this Quinoa Porridge or try adding barley to this Almond Berry Cereal
- As a healthy side dish, use barley in place of rice in this recipe for Brown Rice with Tomatoes and Basil or this Brown Rice Salad
- Barley is also a delicious addition to soup! Try it in my Crockpot Turkey Stew!
From the sound of it, you might think leaky gut only affects the digestive system, but in reality it can affect more. Because Leaky Gut is so common, and such an enigma, I’m offering a free webinar on all things leaky gut. Click here to learn more about the webinar.