Health and nutritional information

What are the health benefits of barley?

Barley has many health benefits. Barley has some of the highest fibre content of the food grains. Dietary fibre intake reduces the risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and metabolic syndrome. High cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart disease and cardiovascular disease, and the fibre in barley helps lower cholesterol. Barley fibre absorbs water, which helps create a feeling of fullness after eating that helps with weight management. A daily intake of approximately three servings of whole grains helps to reduce body weight. Barley has the lowest glycemic index of the food grains. Low-glycemic-index foods may help in the treatment and prevention of diabetes.

Barley also promotes gastrointestinal health. High-fibre foods are recommended for reflux disease of the gastrointestinal tract, duodenal ulcers, inflammatory bowel syndrome, diverticular disease, constipation and hemorrhoids. The gastrointestinal tract, which is made up of the stomach and the intestines, is the largest immune organ in the body and is key to overall health. High fibre intake improves the health of the gastrointestinal tract and the immune system.


What types of barley are available and which is the healthiest?

Pearl and pot barley are the most common products available. Pot and pearl barley are processed by “pearling,” which removes the inedible hull and creates a white-coloured, quicker-cooking product. Besides removing the inedible outer hull, the pearling process removes the germ and bran and, for this reason, pot and pearl barley are not considered whole grains.

They are, however, still high in protein and soluble fibre. The difference between pot and pearl barley is that pearl barley has been pearled more to produce a whiter product. Whole barley that has been dehulled to remove the inedible hull is also available. Because only the inedible hull is removed, it is considered a whole grain.

Whole barley takes longer to cook than either pearl or pot barley. Barley flour milled from either pearled barley or whole, dehulled barley can be used as a complete or partial substitute for wheat flour in recipes. Barley flakes can be used as a breakfast cereal or as a substitute for oatmeal in baked goods such as cookies. All of these forms of barley are healthy options and are included in the list of β-glucan sources under government health claim guidelines. The nutrition profile of pearled barley, hulled barley and barley flour is shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Nutrition profile of pearled barley, hulled barley and barley flour

Nutrition Barley, pearled (1/4 cup, 50 g)Barley, hulled** (1/4 cup, 46 g)Barley, flour*** (1/4 cup, 37 g)
Total fat(g)
Protein(g) 5.038.9 5.733.83.927.6

*Adapted from the U.S. Department of Agriculture
**Minimally processed to remove the hull
***Made from pearled barley

How does barley lower your cholesterol?

Barley is finally getting the recognition it deserves. Years of research and documentation led to Health Canada approving a health claim linking the consumption of barley beta-glucan, a type of soluble fibre, to reduced blood cholesterol. The health claim—which is the result of years of scientific work, including that of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) scientist Dr. Nancy Ames’ team in Winnipeg, MB—will apply to suitable foods that contain at least one gram of beta-glucan from barley grain products per serving. One gram equals 35 per cent of the recommended daily intake.

The claim is based on evidence that shows consumption of at least three grams of beta-glucan per day helps reduce cholesterol, which is a risk factor for heart disease. The health claim includes dehulled or hulless barley, pearl (or pot) barley, barley flakes, grits, meal flour and bran as well as beta-glucan enriched milling fractions. These ingredients can be used in a wide variety of recipes for cooking or baking. For more information on the science behind the health claim, visit Health Canada.


What is β-glucan (beta-glucan)?

Barley is one of the best sources of β-glucan, a type of soluble fibre. Many of the health benefits of barley are due to its β-glucan content. β-glucan has many health benefits. β-glucan slows stomach emptying to create a feeling of fullness, lowers cholesterol, and prevents a fast rise in blood sugar after eating. These properties make β-glucan beneficial in the fight against obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Barley β-glucan may also protect against cancer.


Does barley contain prebiotics?

A complex community of bacteria lives in the human intestine. These bacteria play an important role in health and well-being. Intestinal microbiota regulate inflammatory responses and immune function, and may affect fat metabolism and the risk of Type 2 diabetes. Certain food components (prebiotics) promote the growth of the beneficial bacteria (probiotics) while inhibiting harmful bacteria. Together, prebiotics and probiotics are called synbiotics.

Prebiotics cannot be digested by humans and promote the activity of favourable intestinal bacteria to improve health. All prebiotics are fibre, but not all fibres are prebiotics. Some of the health benefits of prebiotics include:


  • Reduced infectious and antibiotic-associated diarrhea
  • Reduced inflammation and symptoms in people with inflammatory bowel disease
  • Protection against colon cancer and cardiovascular disease
  • Enhanced mineral absorption
  • Promotion of satiety and weight loss, and prevention of obesity


Does barley contain gluten?

Yes. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder of the gastrointestinal tract. It affects approximately one in 133 people in Canada and requires individuals to consume a gluten-free diet. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Since barley contains gluten, people diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten intolerance need to avoid barley and products that contain barley.


Is celiac disease the same as wheat allergy?

No. Wheat allergy is not the same as celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Wheat allergy is a reaction of the immune system to wheat that occurs in approximately 0.3 to three per cent of the population. People who are allergic to wheat may be able to eat other cereal grains such as barley. Health professionals may recommend that barley should not be included when someone with wheat allergy starts a wheat-free diet. However, barley has many health benefits so it may be useful to try adding barley back into the diet at a later time under medical supervision.


Is barley a good choice for people trying to lose weight or prevent weight gain?

Yes. Barley’s high fibre content may help with weight loss or preventing weight gain. Barley has the highest fibre content of whole grains. Soluble fibres, such as the β-glucan in barley, expand in the stomach by absorbing large amounts of water and contributing to a feeling of fullness. Studies suggest that eating three servings of whole grains per day helps with weight loss. Eating 20 to 27 grams of fibre per day from whole foods such as barley may promote weight loss.


Should I remove gluten from my diet if I want to lose weight?

No. There is limited research on the association between gluten and obesity. A gluten-free diet should not be started without medical supervision because it is restrictive and difficult to follow, and can result in poor nutrient intake. However, research suggests that fibre from whole grains helps with weight loss. Soluble fibres, such as barley β-glucan, contribute to a feeling of fullness by absorbing water and slowing the rate at which the stomach empties. In addition, whole grains protect against cardiovascular disease.


How much barley do I have to consume to get the amount of β-glucan that lowers cholesterol?

Eating at least three grams of β-glucan per day helps lower cholesterol. It is important to read labels to determine the amount of β-glucan in the product. As a guideline, one-quarter cup of uncooked pot or pearl barley (one cup cooked) contains about 2.5 grams of β-glucan fibre.


Barley and diabetes


What is glycemic index and glycemic load?

Glycemic index measures how fast a food increases blood sugar levels after eating. To determine glycemic index, portions of a test food and control food (either white bread or glucose) are fed to a group of people. Blood samples are taken at certain times after the food is consumed. The area under the blood glucose curve is then determined for both the test and control foods. The glycemic index of the test food is calculated as a percentage of the glucose response to the control food. Glycemic load is calculated by multiplying the glycemic index by the carbohydrate content of the food.


Is barley suitable for people with diabetes?

Yes. Barley is an excellent food to include as part of a healthy diet for people with diabetes. Barley fits with the nutrition guidelines for the prevention and management of diabetes established by the Canadian and American diabetes associations. Barley is a rich source of the soluble fibre β-glucan, which can slow the rate at which the stomach empties, increasing the feeling of fullness and slowing down the rate that blood sugar rises after eating.

Barley has the lowest glycemic index of food grains (Table 3). Using glycemic index and glycemic load in meal planning may help people with diabetes control their blood sugar levels better than only using carbohydrate counting.


What is metabolic syndrome?

Metabolic syndrome is a group of metabolic abnormalities, including abdominal obesity, elevated serum triglycerides, low HDL-cholesterol, elevated blood pressure and insulin resistance. Risk of Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease are increased in individuals with metabolic syndrome. Whole-grain intake reduces the risk of metabolic syndrome. Barley consumption helps to prevent insulin resistance, a characteristic of metabolic syndrome and an important risk factor for diabetes.

What is the glycemic index of barley and how does it compare to other high carbohydrate foods?

Barley has the lowest glycemic index of the food grains, which is very desirable. Its glycemic index is also lower than many other commonly consumed high-carbohydrate foods (Table 3).


Table 3. Glycemic index of selected foods

Food ItemGI*
Corn 75
Rice, brown94

*Glycemic index determined using white bread as reference food in subjects with normal glucose tolerance


What are the health claims for barley?

In 2012, Health Canada approved the claim that barley-containing foods are a source of fibre shown to help lower cholesterol. An example of the permitted claim is: “125 millilitres of cooked pearled barley supplies 60 per cent of the daily amount of the fibre shown to help lower cholesterol.” The “daily amount” referred to in the claim is three grams of barley β-glucan. To be eligible to make the claim, the food must contain at least one gram of β-glucan per serving from dehulled or hulless barley, pearled barley, barley flakes, grits, meal, flour, bran or β-glucan-enriched milling fractions.

Health Canada permits the following statements in addition to the primary statement:

  • Barley fibre helps reduce/lower cholesterol
  • High cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease
  • Barley fibre helps reduce/lower cholesterol, (which is) a risk factor for heart disease
  • The United States Food and Drug Administration approved a health claim for barley in 2006. The claim permits foods containing barley that provide at least 0.75 grams of soluble fibre per serving to state that they may help to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.


How much fibre should I consume per day?

The recommended intake of fibre is 25 grams per day for women and 38 grams per day for men. In spite of the health benefits of fibre, average intake among Canadians is only about half the recommended amount. About 90 per cent of the U.S. population does not consume enough fibre.


How does the fibre content of barley compare to other grains?

Barley has some of the highest fibre content of the food grains. The fibre content of barley and other grains is shown in Table 2.


Table 2. Total dietary fibre content of selected grains

Whole grain (dry)Total dietary fibre (g/100 g)
Barley, pearled15.6
Wheat 12.2
Oats 10.6
Corn 7.3
Wild rice6.2
Brown rice, long grain3.5

Low in sugar, fat and salt

  • A 100 g portion of dry grain barley contains only 2.3 g of fat and 12 mg of sodium
  • Barley is low in sugar: 1 cup of cooked, pearled barley contains less than 1 g of sugar
  • Barley contains absolutely no cholesterol and is a healthy source of carbohydrates

Vitamins and minerals

  • Barley is a source of many essential vitamins and minerals, including: thiamin, niacin, folate, riboflavin, iron, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, manganese, zinc and selenium.
  • Barley also contains amino acids, the building blocks of protein.
  • The B vitamins in barley—thiamin, riboflavin and niacin—help make red blood cells and use energy from food.
  • The antioxidant selenium helps keep your tissues healthy by preventing cell damage.
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