Whole Grains 101

whole grains 101

Barley – February Grain of the Month

Each month we feature a different whole grain on the Whole Grains Council website, including information on its health benefits, cooking tips and recipes, historical/cultural facts, and more. Click to see the full calendar.

February's Grain of the Month is Barley. We celebrate Valentine's Day and Heart Health Month in February, which makes it a perfect match for barley. Barley's effects on your love life are as yet unproven, but studies show strong support for barley's role in protecting heart health. In fact, since 2005, the U.S. FDA has allowed barley foods to claim that they reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.

Barley at a Glance

How important is barley to civilization? Aside from its use as food, barley is the root of the English measurement system. In 1324 Edward II of England standardized the inch as equal to “three grains of barley, dry and round, placed end to end lengthwise." The foot, the yard, the mile, and all other English measurements followed on. 

While inches and feet have given way to centimeters and meters in most of the world, barley (Hordeum Vulgare L.) is still central to the world's food supply. In fact, it's the world's fourth most important cereal crop after wheat, rice, and corn.

Barley is highest in fiber of all the whole grains, with common varieties clocking in at about 17% fiber, and some, such as the variety called Prowashonupana barley (marketed by Conagra as Sustagrain), having up to 30% fiber! (For comparison, brown rice contains 3.5% fiber, corn about 7%, oats 10% and wheat about 12%.) While the fiber in most grains is concentrated largely in the outer bran layer, barley's fiber is found throughout the whole grain, which may account for its extraordinarily high levels.

But the goodness of whole grains comes from more than fiber. Whole grain barley is high in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals essential to health, too. However, much of the barley eaten in the U.S. is pearled or pearl barley, which is missing some or all of its bran layer. 

As it grows in the field, most barley has an inedible hull adhering tightly to the grain kernel. The easiest, quickest way to remove this inedible hull is to scrape (pearl) it off without worrying too much about how much bran comes off at the same time. To make sure you're enjoying true whole grain barley, looked for hulled barley (barley where the inedible hull was removed carefully, keeping any bran loss to insignificant levels) or hulless barley (a different variety that grows without a tightly-attached hull).

Click here for pictures and descriptions of the different forms of barley.

Health Benefits of Barley

In scientific studies, barley has been shown to reduce the risk of many diseases, and to provide important health benefits. Barley offers many of the same healthy vitamins and minerals as other whole grains, but many think its special health benefits stem from the high levels of soluble beta-glucan fiber found in this grain.

According to a recent review in the journal Minerva Med, beta-glucans reduce cholesterol, help control blood sugar, and improve immune system function. New research even indicates that beta-glucans may be radioprotective: they may help our bodies stand up better to chemotherapy, radiation therapy and nuclear emergencies.

  • Barley, like all whole grains, reduces blood pressure.

  • Eating barley has been shown to lower LDL "bad" cholesterol and may help reduce the risk of heart disease.

  • A flood of recent research indicates that barley's ability to control blood sugar may be exceptional, offering an important tool against rising rates of diabetes.

  • Barley has more protein than corn, brown rice, millet, sorghum or rye, and is higher in fiber and lower in soluble (starch) carbohydrates than almost all other whole grains.

  • Barley may help you feel full longer, and thereby help you control your weight.

  • Barley – even pearl barley – may help reduce visceral fat and waist circumference.

Click here to learn more details and to reference studies on the health benefits of barley.

Cooking Tips and Recipes

Most of us were introduced to barley as those little white things floating in our canned soup. If that's your only experience with barley, you may be surprised to find that it's endlessly versatile. You can cook it as a side dish, such as a barley pilaf; you can bake barley bread; you can enjoy barley porridge for breakfast; and you can even use barley flour to bake your favorite cookies.

While true whole grain barley can take 50-60 minutes to cook, it's easy to cook a big batch then refrigerate it or freeze it until needed. Or cook it in soups, and enjoy comforting aromas simmering on the stove while you do something else.

Here are a few barley recipes from the Whole Grains Council website that may expand your view of the possibilities for enjoying barley:

Barley Antipasto Salad

Baked Chicken with Apples and Barley

Thai Barley Stir-Fry

Apple Barley Bread

Barley Chocolate Chip and Walnut Cookies

We've also put together a special collection of barley recipes that you can download here.(5 MB PDF)

Some companies that support the work of the Whole Grains Council also have great barley recipes on their websites, including:

BG Life Barley

Bob's Red Mill

National Barley Foods Council

Fun Facts about Barley

You don't get to be the 4th most popular grain in the world without some history – and trivia – behind you!

  • One of the earliest known sites  where barley was grown was on the southwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee in what is now Israel, in settlements dating back 23,000 years.

  • In ancient Egypt, barley was held in high esteem. Barley was used in religious ceremonies and pictured on many early Egyptian coins.

  • Roman Gladiators were called Hordearii, or Barley Men. It's said that they believed barley gave them greater strength and stamina than other foods.

  • More varieties of barley are found today in Ethiopia than in any other area of comparable size.

  • Barley came to North America with Christopher Columbus on his second voyage in 1494, but was not established as a crop on the East Coast of that continent until English and Scandinavian settlers cultivated barley largely to make beer. Meanwhile, the Spanish took barley to the Southwest and Western part of the continent and to parts of South America.

  • Ayurvedic physicians in ancient India report treating a condition described as sweet urine disease – thought to have been diabetes – by switching patients from rice to barley. 

  • Barley is a highly-adaptable crop, growing in places as disparate as north of the Arctic circle, in tropical Ethiopia, and at high altitudes in the Andes mountains of South America.

 

Many thanks to Walt Newman, retired Montana State University professor and co-author of Barley for Food and Health, for his delightful and helpful contributions to this page.

All information on this website is © 2003-2013, Oldways Preservation Trust/Whole Grains Council, unless otherwise noted.