Barley is a major cereal grain, commonly found in bread, beverages, and various cuisines of every culture. It was one of the first cultivated grains in history and, to this day, remains one of the most widely consumed grains, globally.
Barley and other whole grain foods have rapidly been gaining popularity over the past few years due to the various health benefits they provide.
Whole grains are important sources of dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals that are not found in refined or "enriched" grains.
When refined, grains lose certain components (specifically, the bran and germ), which also removes most of the fiber and nutrients naturally found in most grains.
Choosing whole grains over their processed counterparts reduces the risk of several chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
This article provides a nutritional breakdown of barley and an in-depth look at its possible health benefits, how to incorporate more barley into your diet, and any potential health risks of consuming barley.
Contents of this article:
Fast facts on barley
Here are some key points about barley. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.
Pearl barley is by far the most popular form of barley in the US.
Possible health benefits of barley
Consuming plant-based foods of all kinds has long been associated with a reduced risk of many lifestyle-related health conditions.
They are also considered to promote a healthy complexion and hair, increased energy, and overall lower weight.
1) Blood pressure
Maintaining a low sodium intake is essential to lowering blood pressure, however, increasing potassium intake may be just as important. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, fewer than 2 percent of American adults meet the daily 4,700-milligram recommendation.
Also, potassium, calcium, and magnesium (all present in barley) have been found to decrease blood pressure naturally.
A study, published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association in 2006, concluded that:
"In a healthful diet, increasing whole grain foods, whether high in soluble or insoluble fiber, can reduce blood pressure and may help to control weight."
2) Bone health
A careful balance of phosphate and calcium is necessary for proper bone mineralization - consumption of too much phosphorus with too little calcium intake can result in bone loss.
Bone formation requires the mineral manganese; also, iron and zinc play important roles in the production and maturation of collagen.
3) Heart health
Barley's fiber, potassium, folate, and vitamin B6 content, coupled with its lack of cholesterol, all support a healthy heart. Barley is an excellent source of fiber, which helps lower the total amount of cholesterol in the blood, thereby decreasing the risk of heart disease.
A randomized, double-blind study from 2007 found that barley intake significantly reduced serum cholesterol and visceral fat, both of which are markers of cardiovascular risk.
The beta glucan fiber found in barley lowers LDL ("bad") cholesterol by binding to bile acids and removing them from the body via excretion. An intake of 3 grams of beta-glucans per day can lower blood cholesterol levels by 5 percent.
In one study, those who consumed 4,069 milligrams of potassium per day had a 49 percent lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease compared with those who consumed less potassium (about 1,000 milligrams per day).
Vitamin B6 and folate, both present in barley, prevent the buildup of a compound known as homocysteine. When excessive amounts of homocysteine accumulate in the body, it can damage blood vessels and lead to heart problems.
Selenium is a mineral that is not present in most foods, but can be found in barley. It plays a role in liver enzyme function and helps detoxify some cancer-causing compounds in the body. Additionally, selenium prevents inflammation, decreases tumor growth rates, and improves immune response to infection by stimulating production of killer T cells.
The fiber in barley not only supports heart health, fiber intake from plant-based foods is also associated with a lowered risk of colorectal cancer. Beta glucan fiber has been found to stimulate the immune system to fight cancer cells and prevent tumors from forming.
Choline is a very important and versatile nutrient in barley that helps with sleep, muscle movement, learning, and memory.
Choline also helps to maintain the structure of cellular membranes, aids in the transmission of nerve impulses, assists in the absorption of fat, and reduces chronic inflammation.
6) Digestion and regularity
Because of its fiber content, barley helps to prevent constipation and promote regularity for a healthy digestive tract.
7) Weight management and satiety
Adequate fiber intake is commonly recognized as an important factor in weight loss by functioning as a "bulking agent" in the digestive system.
Fiber in the diet helps to increase satiety and reduce appetite, making you feel fuller for longer with the goal of lowering your overall calorie intake.
Nutritional profile of barley
Barley is commonly found in two forms: hulled and pearled. Hulled barley has undergone minimal processing to remove only the inedible outer shell, leaving the bran and germ intact. Pearled barley has had the layer of bran removed along with the hull.
Half a cup of hulled barley contains:
- 326 calories
- 11.5 grams of protein
- 2 grams of fat
- 0 grams of cholesterol
- 68 grams of carbohydrate
- 16 grams of dietary fiber (64 percent of daily requirements)
That same serving provides the following portion of your daily allowance of minerals and micronutrients:
- 3 percent of calcium
- 18 percent of iron
- 40 percent of thiamin
- 15 percent of riboflavin
- 21 percent of niacin
- 15 percent of vitamin B6
- 5 percent of folate
- 30 percent of magnesium
- 25 percent of phosphorus
- 12 percent of potassium
- 17 percent of zinc
- 23 percent of copper
- 50 percent of selenium
- 90 percent of manganese
Beta-glucans are a type of fiber that is found in barley. Recently, beta-glucans have undergone extensive studies to determine their role in human health.
They have been found to lower insulin resistance and blood cholesterol levels, thereby lowering the risk of obesity as well as providing an immunity boost.
How to add barley into your diet
Barley can be added to soups, stews, salads, and risottos to make them more hearty and flavorful.
Barley is a wonderfully versatile grain that is prized for its nutty flavor and chewy, pasta-like texture. It can be prepared in a number of ways and is usually found in stores in hulled or pearled form.
Hulled barley has a somewhat chewier consistency than pearled barley and requires longer soaking and cooking times due to its outer bran layer.
To prepare hulled barley, it must be soaked overnight or at least for several hours to reduce the cooking time and achieve optimal flavor and texture.
After soaking the barley in twice its amount of water, it should be drained and rinsed before cooking.
To cook barley, add 1 cup of the grain to 3 cups of water and bring it to a boil, then reduce the heat and let the barley simmer for about 45 minutes.
The same cooking process can be applied to pearled barley, minus the soaking step.
- Add barley to any pot of soup or stew to make it heartier and more flavorful.
- Cook barley in your choice of broth and add a variety of vegetables for a tasty pilaf or risotto.
- Toss chilled cooked barley with diced vegetables and homemade dressing for a quick cold salad.
- Combine barley with onion, celery, mushrooms, carrots, and green pepper. Add broth to the mixture, bring it to a boil, and then bake for approximately 45 minutes for an easy and healthy barley casserole.
Potential health risks of consuming barley
It is the total diet or overall eating pattern that is most important in disease prevention and achieving good health. It is better to eat a varied diet than to concentrate on individual foods as the key to good health.
Barley contains gluten, and, therefore, should be avoided by those with celiac disease. Malt, malted beverages such as beer, and several flavorings are derived from barley, which means they are not gluten-free and should not be consumed by individuals with celiac.
Be sure to drink plenty of liquids as you increase your fiber intake. Do not try to get all of your fiber at one time, but instead, eat some at every meal and snack.
Gradually increase your fiber intake for 1 or 2 months to help prevent digestive discomfort as your body adjusts to the change. Increasing fiber intake without adequate fluid intake could lead to constipation.