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Is barley healthy for you?

Fact Checked

barley

Story at-a-glance -

  • Barley is classified as a whole grain, and ranks as the fourth most widely produced grain crop in the world after maize, rice and wheat
  • Knowing the difference between pearl or hulled barley is crucial, as they have different cooking times and different purposes
  • Unfortunately, barley is high in lectins. Lectins can be problematic for everyone, but those who are struggling with autoimmune disorders may experience a higher degree of toxicity due to the negative autoimmune and inflammatory effects of these plant proteins

You may be familiar with barley as the main ingredient in beer production,1 but this versatile cereal grain, loved for its deep nutlike taste and chewy consistency,2 has myriad uses in the kitchen. However, there’s a downside to consuming it.

What is barley?

Sometimes called cereal barley or grain barley, barley (Hordeum vulgare L.) is a cool season crop that is a member of the grass family, with a height that reaches 2 to 4 feet. It is not from the U.S. — in fact, its exact origin is unspecified. There is, however, speculation as to where it came from, with many believing it originated from the Mediterranean or Asia.3

Some say barley descended from Hordeum spontaneum, a weedy crop that grows in the crescent regions of the Near East, which are believed to have fertile soils, while others say it came from Tibet. A similar plant, hordeum agriocrithon, was discovered in 1938 in this place, and is said to be a closer ancestor to the barley that we know today.4

When you look closely at the barley plant, you’ll notice the stems are erect and stout. The leaves appear alternate but are few. Barley seeds, which are lighter than rye or wheat, are shaped like a spindle, with a light tan to yellow color.5

Barley is classified as a whole grain, and ranks as the fourth most widely produced grain crop in the world, after maize, rice and wheat.6 In 2017, barley output was said to be 141.7 million tonnes.7 The majority of barley production goes to animal feed; in fact, only 2% of the barley output goes to human consumption (65% goes to animal feed, while 33% goes to malting).8

Barley has often been compared to wheat, particularly due to its appearance,9 but there are some notable differences between the two. For one, barley has a stronger flavor than wheat. It also has a higher fiber content.10

Is barley gluten free?

Another characteristic that wheat and barley have in common is that they both contain gluten. Products made from barley, such as malted beers, lagers, stouts and ales, all have gluten. If you’re buying foods like cereal, check the label for “barley malt extract” — it likely has gluten, too.11

Does barley have health benefits?

Whole grain barley contains high amounts of dietary fiber, both soluble and insoluble. You can also get vitamin B and E, niacin, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, molybdenum and chromium from this food. It also contains anthocyanins and flavonoids.12,13

Aside from being consumed as a whole grain, the leaves of the plant are used as an herbal remedy in the form of barley leaf extracts and dried powder, which may have potent health benefits.14 In Japan, young barley leaves are popularly consumed as a green vegetable juice called aojiru.15 The leaves of the plants contain hypolipidemic, antidepressant, antioxidant and antidiabetic properties, according to a 2016 study in Nutrients journal.16

Studies have linked barley grain and products made from the plant’s leaves or seeds to various benefits, such as helping:

Reduce heart disease risk by managing cholesterol levels — Barley contains a viscous soluble fiber called beta-glucan, which is known for helping lower cholesterol. A 2016 analysis conducted on 14 trials found that ingesting beta-glucan from barley may help lower LDL and HDL cholesterol levels, potentially helping reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.17

Manage diabetesAn extract derived from barley seeds, called hydroalcoholic extract, may help control diabetes when consumed long-term, according to a 2014 study conducted on rat subjects.18

Protect the liver from injury — A 2016 study published in the journal Nutrients found that barley sprouts, which have high amounts of saponarin flavonoid, helped protect the liver against alcohol-induced injury. The study authors noted that the sprouts may help inhibit the inflammatory response brought on by alcohol.19

Promote optimal digestive function — An animal study notes that barley leaf powder, when consumed as a drink, may help keep the digestive tract healthy by shortening the gastrointestinal transit time of feces and increasing fecal weight.20

Reduce the risk of cancer — A 2017 study published in Biomedical Reports notes that barley leaf extract helps induce apoptosis (cell death) among breast and prostate cancer cells.21

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How to cook barley grain

Whole grain barley is available in two varieties: pearl and hulled. According to Medical News Today, hulled barley has gone through minimal processing so that the inedible outer shell is removed, but the germ and bran are intact. Meanwhile, pearl barley is more processed. Its hull and the bran are removed, leaving only the germ.22 Hence, it has a lower fiber content and is less nutritious than hulled barley.23

The Kitchn notes that the traditional way of cooking barley grain is by simmering it in water or a stock (this adds more flavor) — the same way you cook rice or quinoa. One cup of raw barley grain will yield three cups of cooked grain.

Knowing whether you have pearl or hulled barley on hand is crucial, as they have different cooking times and different purposes. Since pearl barley no longer has its hull, it cooks quicker, with the end product being softer and allowing for more starch to be released into the liquid it’s being cooked in. So when added to soups, it can act as a thickener.

Meanwhile, hulled barley absorbs less liquid, therefore retaining its shape. For whole grain salads or a pilaf, this is a good choice. Just remember that it takes 20 to 25 minutes longer to cook hulled barley compared to pearl barley.24 Here’s a simple recipe from HuffPost Life you can try:25

Basic cooked barley recipe

Ingredients:

1 cup barley

3 cups water or stock

1/2 teaspoon of salt (use this only if you aren't using stock)

Procedure:

1. Let the water (or stock), barley and salt boil over high heat.

2. Reduce the heat to low. Cover and let cook for 45 minutes, or until tender and the liquid is absorbed.

3. Fluff the grains with a fork before serving.

Have you tried barley tea?

Barley tea is another popular barley product today, and it dates back a long time, particularly in Asian countries like Korea, Japan, China and India. Koreans call it boricha, the Japanese refer to it as mugicha and the Chinese know it as maicha.26 According to an issue in Cereal Foods World, this drink is prepared by roasting barley grain and then steeping them. Barley tea can be enjoyed hot or cold, with or without food.27

One of barley tea’s benefits is its potential to scavenge free radicals, thanks to its antioxidant content. A 2004 study in Bioscience, Biotechnology and Biochemistry journal notes that multiple compounds were identified in the tea, namely:28

  • P-hydroxyacetophenone
  • 5,7-dihydroxychromone
  • Naringenin
  • Quercetin
  • Iso-americanol A
  • Hydroxybenzaldehyde
  • 3,4-dihydroxybenzaldehyde
  • P-hydroxybenzoic acid
  • Vanillic acid
  • P-coumaric acid

Lectins: The downside of barley

While barley may provide numerous benefits, it’s very high in lectins, along with wheat and other seeds of the grass family like corn, oats, millet and rye. These sugar-binding plant proteins bind to your cell membranes and act as antinutrients that may mess up your gut microbiome and affect your digestive process.

While there are ways to reduce the lectin level in other plants like beans and nightshade vegetables, such as soaking or peeling them before cooking, the lectin in grains like barley cannot be removed through cooking (even pressure cooking).29 Before you proceed with eating this grain, I highly advise you to learn more about lectins and be on the lookout for their potential effects.

Lectins can be problematic for everyone, but those who are struggling with autoimmune disorders may experience a higher degree of toxicity due to the negative autoimmune and inflammatory effects of these plant proteins. If you fall under this group, it may be best to consume barley in moderation or avoid it completely.

Frequently asked questions about barley

Q: Is barley wheat?

A: Barley and wheat are two different plants, although they are both grains. Despite their similarity in appearance, barley has a stronger flavor and a higher fiber content.30

Q: Is barley healthy and good for you?

A: Barley is rich in dietary fiber and nutrients like vitamin B and E, copper, magnesium and manganese, to name a few. Studies have pointed toward its potential to help promote wellbeing, particularly heart, liver and digestive health.31,32

The downside of barley is that it contains lectins. These sugar-binding proteins act like antinutrients that hamper your digestive process and cause inflammation. Hence, it’s best to consume lectins in very moderate amounts.

Q: What does barley look like?

A: Compared to wheat or rye, barley grains appear lighter. They have a spindle-like shape, and a light tan to yellow color.33

Q: What kind of barley is healthiest?

A: When buying barley grain, you’ll find two varieties: pearl barley and hulled barley. Of these two, hulled barley may offer more fiber and nutrients, as it’s less processed. Pearl barley only has the germ intact, as its hull and bran have been removed. This strips it of its fiber and other nutrients as well.34,35

But as mentioned above, barley contains lectins, which may outweigh the benefits of its nutrients. Moderate or avoid consuming it, especially if you’re dealing with an immune-related problem.

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