What is barley?
Barley is an ancient cereal grain that has been grown and consumed for thousands of years. Barley is Canada’s fourth-largest crop, after wheat, canola and corn.1 In North America, barley is a major crop used for animal feed as well as for malt for brewing beer. Barley is becoming increasingly popular as a healthy, locally produced grain.
What is a whole grain?
Whole grains contain all the essential parts and naturally occurring nutrients of the entire grain kernel in their original proportions. If the grain has been processed (e.g., cracked, crushed, rolled, milled), the product should deliver the same rich balance of nutrients that is found in the original kernel. This means that 100 per cent of the original kernel—all of the bran, germ and endosperm—must be present to qualify as a whole grain.
The outer bran layer of whole grains is composed of carbohydrates that are not digestible.2 The inner layers contain soluble fibres and many other nutrients.2 In addition to dietary fibre, whole grains are important sources of many nutrients that help to prevent disease.
Where can I buy barley?
Various forms of barley can be purchased at most grocery and health food stores. Barley is often found in the bulk foods section or as a packaged product.
How do I incorporate barley into my diet?
Barley has a wonderful nutty flavour and appealing texture. Pearled barley can be easily added into soups, salads and main course dishes, and can be cooked on the stovetop or in a rice cooker, oven or slow cooker. When cooking pearled barley, make some extra to use in other dishes; cooked barley can be frozen in an airtight container and kept for up to three months. Barley flour is another versatile option—depending on the recipe, barley flour can completely or partially replace all-purpose wheat flour. For cooking instructions and recipe ideas, visit www.gobarley.com.
Benefits of Barley
What are the health benefits of barley?
Barley has many health benefits. Barley has some of the highest fibre content of the food grains.3 Dietary fibre intake reduces the risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and metabolic syndrome.4 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.2 Barley has the lowest glycemic index of the food grains. Low-glycemic-index foods may help in the treatment and prevention of diabetes.5,6
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.4 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.4
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*
(1/4 cup, 50 g)
(1/4 cup, 46 g)
(1/4 cup, 37 g)
|Total fat (g)||0.6||1.1||0.6|
*Adapted from the U.S. Department of Agriculture3
**Minimally processed to remove the hull
***Made from pearled barley
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.
What are the health effects of β-glucan?
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.7 These properties make β-glucan beneficial in the fight against obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Barley β-glucan may also protect against cancer.7
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.2 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.10 Studies suggest that eating three servings of whole grains per day helps with weight loss.2 Eating 20 to 27 grams of fibre per day from whole foods such as barley may promote weight loss.25
What is a prebiotic? 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.26 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.27 All prebiotics are fibre, but not all fibres are prebiotics.27 Some of the health benefits of prebiotics include:27
- 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; and
- Promotion of satiety and weight loss, and prevention of obesity.
Barley β-glucan has been shown to be highly fermentable and may possess prebiotic properties, though this research is in its early stages.
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.8 Wheat allergy is a reaction of the immune system to wheat that occurs in approximately 0.3 to three per cent of the population.8 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.
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.9 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.10 In addition, whole grains protect against cardiovascular disease.8
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.11 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.”11 The “daily amount” referred to in the claim is three grams of barley β-glucan.11 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.11
Health Canada permits the following statements in addition to the primary statement:11
- 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.12
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.13,14
How does barley lower cholesterol?
Barley β-glucan binds to bile acids so that they are removed from the body in the stool. This helps to lower blood cholesterol levels since bile acids are made from cholesterol.
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.15 In spite of the health benefits of fibre, average intake among Canadians is only about half the recommended amount.16 About 90 per cent of the U.S. population does not consume enough fibre.17
How does the fibre content of barley compare to other grains?
Barley has some of the highest fibre content of the food grains.3 The fibre content of barley and other grains is shown in Table 2.
Table 2. Total dietary fibre content of selected grains3
|Whole grain (dry)||Total dietary fibre (g/100 g)|
|Brown rice, long grain||3.5|
Barley & 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.18 Glycemic load is calculated by multiplying the glycemic index by the carbohydrate content of the food.
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 foods19
*Glycemic index determined using white bread as reference food in subjects with normal glucose tolerance
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.6,20 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.21
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.6
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.22 Risk of Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease are increased in individuals with metabolic syndrome. Whole-grain intake reduces the risk of metabolic syndrome.23 Barley consumption helps to prevent insulin resistance, a characteristic of metabolic syndrome and an important risk factor for diabetes.24
- Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. 2014. Canada: Outlook for Principal Field Crops (2014-01-24). http://www.agr.gc.ca/eng/industry-markets-and-trade/statistics-and-market-information/by-product-sector/crops/crops-market-information-canadian-industry/canada-outlook-for-principal-field-crops/canada-outlook-for-principal-field-crops-2014-01-24/?id=1390926466193 Accessed March 11 2014.
- Jonnalagadda SS, et al. J Nutr 2011;141:1011S-1022S.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2011. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference. http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ Accessed February 2 2014.
- Anderson JW, et al. Nutr Rev 2009;67:188-205.
- Casiraghi MC, et al. J Am Coll Nutr 2006;25:313-320.
- Bantle JP, et al. Diabetes Care 2008;31 Suppl 1:S61-78.
- El Khoury D, et al. J Nutr Metab 2012;2012:851362.
- Brouns FJPH, et al. J Cereal Sci 2013;58:209-215.
- Clark MJ, et al. J Am Coll Nutr 2013;32:200-211.
- Howarth NC, et al. Nutr Rev 2001;59:129-139.
- Health Canada. 2012. Summary of Health Canada’s assessment of a health claim about barley products and blood cholesterol lowering. http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/alt_formats/pdf/label-etiquet/claims-reclam/assess-evalu/barley-orge-eng.pdf Accessed January 22 2014.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 2006. FDA finalizes health claim associating consumption of barley products with reduction of risk of coronary heart disease. http://www.fda.gov/newsevents/newsroom/pressannouncements/2006/ucm108657.htm Accessed January 20 2014.
- Ames NP, et al. J Nutr 2008;138:1237S-1243S.
- National Barley Foods Council. Barley facts: FDA health claim. http://www.barleyfoods.org/BarleyFacts-FDA.pdf Accessed February 3 2014.
- Institute of Medicine. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (Macronutrients). Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 2005.
- Langlois K, et al. Health Rep 2009;20:11-20.
- Bernstein AM, et al. Nutrients 2013;5:1471-1487.
- Wolever TM, et al. Am J Clin Nutr 1991;54:846-854.
- Atkinson FS, et al. Diabetes Care 2008;31:2281-2283.
- Canadian Diabetes Association. Can J Diabetes 2008;32.
- Biorklund M, et al. Eur J Clin Nutr 2005;59:1272-1281.
- Johnson RJ, et al. Obesity (Silver Spring) 2013;21:659-664.
- McKeown NM, et al. Diabetes Care 2004;27:538-546.
- Kim H, et al. Eur J Nutr 2009;48:170-175.
- Slavin JL. J Am Diet Assoc 2008;108:1716-1731.
- Petschow B, et al. Ann N Y Acad Sci 2013;1306:1-17.
- Slavin J. Nutrients 2013;5:1417-1435.