What are the benefits of eating barley? A very high fiber content (both soluble and insoluble), vitamins and minerals like selenium and magnesium, antioxidants called lignans, plus heart health and diabetes protection are just some of the barley nutrition benefits that make it one of the best whole grain choices.
What Is Barley?
Barley (Hordeum Vulgare L.) is a member of the grass family and one of the most popular types of cereal grains in the world. According to the Whole Grain Council, in a 2007 ranking of cereal crops grown around the world, it was listed as the fourth largest produced grain worldwide (behind wheat, rice and corn), with about 136 million tons produced every year.
As of 2013, reports showed that barley was grown in over 100 nations worldwide, with the largest producers being Russia, Germany, France, Canada and Spain.
It 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 it for thousands of years.
It provides a range of important vitamins and minerals, some of which include:
- B vitamins
Uses Throughout History
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 it began being grown for food beginning in Mesopotamia from the second millennium BC onward.
A high percentage of the barley grain grown around the world today is used to make it into other products, like alcohol, syrup (called malted barley) and brown barley bread. Historically, barley uses have included making beer and other alcoholic drinks, like whiskey or barley wine, malt, barley tea, flour, bread, and porridges.
Sprouted barley is naturally high in maltose, which is a type of sugar that is used for various purposes. This is why maltose from this grain is used to make barley malt syrups that serve as a natural sweetener.
Barley meal (or barley flour) is the base ingredient in a traditional porridge found in Scotland, for example. Barley bread is a type of brown bread made from barley flour that makes dates to the Iron Ages.
The 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 and Saudi Arabia, for centuries.
Barley soup is traditionally eaten during Ramadan in Saudi Arabia, and it is included in cholent, a traditional Jewish stew that is often eaten on Sabbath. In Africa, this grain is one of the major food crops that provides nutrients to impoverished populations.
This grain 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. Certain sugars in the grain are fermented to make beer and whiskey.
Alcoholic drinks made with barley have long been prepared by boiling the grain in water, then mixing the barley water with white wine and other ingredients. Since at least the 18th century, this grain has been used to make strong beers in England, Ireland and Scotland, using traditional English brewing techniques.
Barley is available in a variety of forms, including pearled and hulled grains, grits, flakes, and flour.
What kind of barley is healthiest? Hulled barley (or covered barley) is considered the most nutrient-dense type.
It’s eaten after removing the inedible, fibrous, outer hull of the grains, but it is still considered a whole grain, unlike pearled barley. Once removed, it is called “dehulled barley,” but it has its bran and germ intact, which is where many of the nutrients can be found.
Pearled barley is more processed and refined, so it lacks some of the barley nutrition benefits described more below.
The pearled version is dehulled, 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 cooks quicker because its bran has been removed, but this also removes nutrients and won’t provide as many benefits as the hulled grain.
Top 9 Benefits
1. High Source of Fiber
We can’t talk about barley nutrition without mentioning its high fiber content. Each one-cup serving provides approximately six grams of fiber.
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.
The fiber found in whole grains has been shown to have positive effects on glycemic response, blood lipid attenuation, intestinal enzymatic activity, digestibility of foods and gut microbiota.
2. Can Help Improve Digestion
Fiber can help 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 four weeks, barley intake had beneficial effects on both lipid metabolism and bowel function.
Fiber is also important for maintaining a healthy balance of bacteria within the digestive tract.
Another important and well-researched benefit of barley nutrition? Its high supply of fiber may even be beneficial in preventing certain types of cancers within the digestive system, including colon cancer.
The soluble fiber found in barley essentially “feeds” probiotic bacteria in the gut, helping produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), including butyrate, that have anti-inflammatory effects and may help treat symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
Is barley good for kidney patients? It can be, since it is a grain that’s lower in phosphorus but high in a number of nutrients, which is important for people with kidney disease to monitor.
According to the National Kidney Foundation, a plant-based (or mostly vegetarian) diet that includes several servings of whole grains daily can be beneficial for those with kidney disease because whole grains provide fiber and a good balance of protein, sodium, potassium and phosphorus.
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 nutrition beneficial for appetite control and weight loss.
An article published in the Journal of Nutrition states, “The role of dietary fiber in energy intake regulation and obesity development is related to its unique physical and chemical properties that aid in early signals of satiation and enhanced or prolonged signals of satiety.”
Many other studies have found that compared to more refined grain products, like white bread, for example, consuming whole grains significantly reduces hunger levels and positively impacts metabolic responses to carbohydrates by absorbing starches at a slower pace. This is believed to be one reason why epidemiologic studies have shown that fiber intake is associated with a lower body weight.
4. Helps Control Blood Sugar Levels
Research suggests that 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 bloodstream.
Barley nutrition contains eight essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein, as well as high amounts of soluble fiber, which controls 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 the 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 seven-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.
Another animal study conducted in 2014 found similar positive effects of adding barley to the diet. 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.
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 nutrition’s high source of insoluble fiber is mostly responsible for giving it its heart health benefits because it inhibits the amount of bad cholesterol that can be absorbed by the intestines. As such, it’s one of the most recommended cholesterol-lowering foods.
In a 2004 study, 28 men with high cholesterol levels were put on a diet containing high amounts of barley, with roughly 20 percent of overall calories coming from whole grain barley. After five 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.
Fiber helps 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 nutrition 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. Helps Prevent Heart Disease
One of the biggest advantages of barley nutrition is that eating whole grains is correlated with improved heart health and reduced risk markers associated with cardiometabolic diseases, especially when eaten as part of a balanced, high-fiber diet, according to a large body of research.
This grain contains certain nutrients, including vitamin B3 niacin, vitamin B1 thiamine, selenium, copper and magnesium, that are useful in lowering LDL and total cholesterol, high blood pressure and other risk factors associated with heart disease.
These minerals help 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.
These 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 nutrition helps blood vessels 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.
According to a 2018 article published in the journal Molecules, “lignan compounds are of increasing interest because of their potential beneficial properties, i.e., anticancerogenic, antioxidant, estrogenic, and antiestrogenic activities.”
Foods that provide lignans are considered to be “functional foods” because they offer protection against a range of degenerative diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, neurodegenerative diseases, erectile dysfunction and more.
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 metabolize bacteria and sustain a healthy ratio of “good-to-bad” bacteria within the gut, reducing overall inflammation.
The antioxidants found in barley nutrition help boost serum levels of enterolactones, which are compounds associated with controlling hormone levels and therefore fighting hormone-related cancers, such as prostate and breast cancer.
8. High in Vitamins and Minerals
Barley nutrition 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 and the nervous system, and producing red blood cells.
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 nutrition is important for brain health and supporting the nervous system.
Magnesium is needed for numerous important enzyme relations within the body, including the production and use of glucose. It also helps control muscle functioning, dilating blood vessels and many more functions.
9. Helps Protect Against Cancer
A diet that includes whole grains has been shown to protect against various forms of cancer, including gastrointestinal, 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.
These beneficial compounds have mechanistic effects that include binding to harmful carcinogens and removing them from the body. Whole grains also produce protective short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) and help improve the environment of the gut and therefore boost immunity by helping with antioxidant and nutrient absorption.
The grain’s antioxidants and enterolactones also seem to play a role in defending against hormone-based types of cancer. Other plausible mechanisms by which whole grains may defend against cancer (especially colon cancer), according to a 2011 systematic review, include increased stool bulk and dilution of carcinogens in the colonic lumen, reduced transit time, and bacterial fermentation of fibers.
A quarter cup of uncooked/dry hulled barley provides about:
- 160 calories
- 34 grams carbohydrates
- 6 grams protein
- 1 gram fat
- 8 grams fiber
- 0.9 milligrams manganese (45 percent)
- 17 milligrams selenium (25 percent)
- 0.2 milligrams thiamine (20 percent)
- 61 milligrams magnesium (15 percent)
- 121 milligrams phosphorus (12 percent)
- 0.03 milligrams copper (11 percent)
- 2 milligrams niacin (10 percent)
Barley vs. Other Grains?
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.
Is barley better than wheat? Barley and wheat have similarities but are two different types of grasses.
Barley has some more fiber than whole grain wheat. It’s about 17 percent fiber from volume, while wheat is about 12 percent.
Both are associated with health benefits like lowering cholesterol and helping you feel full.
Risks and Side Effects
Is barley gluten-free? No, just like whole grain wheat and rye, it naturally contains the protein gluten.
This means it may not be a suitable grain for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivities. Glutenous proteins can greatly be reduced by sprouting and fermenting grains, however some still remains intact.
Gluten may be difficult for some people to properly digest and may cause a range of reactions among those with gluten intolerance, including malabsorption of nutrients, leaky gut syndrome, low energy levels, bloating, constipation and other symptoms.
Although sprouting barley can help lower its gluten content, it 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 it and other grains, at least for a period of time to allow your gut to heal.
The same nutrients found in this grain 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 this grain can be a beneficial part of your diet.
How to Select and Cook
When buying barley, you want to look for 100 percent whole grain hulled or dehulled barley but ideally not pearled.
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 unleash their nutrients so 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, which bind to nutrients and make them very difficult to absorb.
Soaking and sprouting grains can help lower the level of antinutrients significantly, making grains more beneficial and also easier to digest. It can also reduce the amount of gluten present 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.
To sprout your own, you can soak whole, raw barley grains for eight to 12 hours and then sprout them over the course of about three days.
How to Cook
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 it using a ratio of one part barley to three parts boiling water or broth. This means you add 1/3 cup of the grain 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 it to simmer on a low heat setting until it’s tender and cooked through. Pearled barley usually takes about an hour of simmering to cook, while the preferred type of hulled barley takes about one-and-a-half hours.
How to Add It to Your Diet
This ancient grain 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 this grain, too.
It 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.
You can add more barley nutrition benefits to your diet by using the hulled variety anywhere you’d normally use other whole grains, like quinoa, rice or buckwheat. You can use it in the following recipes:
- It is a delicious addition to soup and stews. Try it in this Crockpot Turkey Stew or Vegetable Beef Barley Soup Recipe. Mushroom barley soup is another popular use for this hearty whole grain.
- For breakfast, try this grain in this Quinoa Porridge Recipe.
- As a healthy side dish, you can use it in place of rice. Try Barley with Tomatoes and Basil or Barley Salad.
- To make barley bread, you’ll need basic ingredients like whole grain barley flour, eggs, milk or water, olive oil, yeast, honey, and salt. Try this recipe.
- Barley (Hordeum Vulgare L.) is a member of the grass family and is one of the most popular types of whole grains in the world. It’s high in fiber, manganese, copper, magnesium, B vitamins, selenium and more.
- What is barley used for? For thousands of years this grain has been used to make beer and other alcoholic drinks, like barley wine, malt (a sweetener), tea, flour, brown breads, and porridges.
- Studies show that barley health benefits include helping lower high cholesterol and blood pressure, supporting digestive health, helping with weight management, supporting healthy blood sugar levels and metabolic health, and more.
- Does barley have gluten? Yes, like rye and wheat, it naturally contains the protein gluten. This means that for people with an intolerance to gluten, barley side effects may include indigestion, allergic reactions, skin rashes and more. If this applies to you, other gluten-free grains like quinoa, buckwheat or brown rice are better options.