Barley: Benefits, Nutrition, and Risks

Barley: Benefits, Nutrition, and Risks


Barley (Hordeum vulgare L.) is a whole grain commonly used in breads, stews, salads, and side dishes. It’s rich in fiber and minerals that support heart, metabolic, and digestive health. However, most barley grown in the United States is used for malting rather than consumed whole. 

Barley is a source of gluten, so it is not suitable for people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Still, for many people, it is a nutritious grain worth incorporating into a balanced diet.

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Barley is a source of beta-glucans and inulin, two kinds of soluble fiber found only in a few foods. These fibers serve as prebiotics that help the healthy bacteria in your gut grow and thrive. They also have anti-inflammatory effects on the gut and may help prevent colon cancer.

Studies have found that soluble fiber is especially beneficial for the gut microbiome since it’s more easily metabolized by microorganisms in the gut to produce beneficial metabolites. This can reduce risk of constipation, diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and colorectal cancer.

Barley’s soluble fiber content—particularly its beta-glucans—can also help lower cholesterol. About 11% of U.S. adults over age 20 have high cholesterol. High cholesterol increases your risk for heart disease and stroke, so it’s important to prevent or manage high cholesterol to maintain health.

Adding more soluble fiber to your diet is one key way to help lower your cholesterol. Studies have found that consuming soluble fiber can reduce low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, (bad) cholesterol and total cholesterol by 5–10%.

Research shows that barley beta-glucans can help lower LDL cholesterol without lowering high-density lipoprotein, or HDL (good) cholesterol. They work by increasing the amount of cholesterol you excrete in your stool. A study found that supplementing with 6.5 grams (g) of barley beta-glucans daily for at least four weeks lowered LDL and non-HDL cholesterol levels by 7% compared to a control diet.

Barley is a carb that may help manage blood sugars for people with diabetes. This is largely due to the grain’s fiber and beta-glucan content, which can help slow digestion and prevent blood sugar spikes. 

One research review found that consuming barley-based cereals improved glucose and insulin response compared to cereals made with refined grains.

Another small study found that mixing high beta-glucan barley with white rice significantly decreased blood sugar after the meal compared to eating white rice alone. This was true for both participants with normal glucose tolerance and participants with type 2 diabetes.

Also, consuming adequate amounts of whole grains like barley is associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.

Barley appears to reduce inflammation, particularly for people with metabolic syndrome, high cholesterol, and other metabolic health issues, according to a recent study. This is likely due to the grain’s low glycemic index, beta-glucan and resistant starch content, and antioxidant properties.

Research also found that consuming bread with 40% sorghum and barley flour led to higher plasma antioxidant levels than bread with wheat flour alone. Antioxidants reduce inflammation, so consuming foods like barley that help raise antioxidant levels can help manage inflammation.

Barley is a grain, so it’s mainly a source of carbs. However, as a whole grain, it contains more fiber, protein, and minerals than refined grains. Pearled barley—which is not technically a whole grain but is the easiest kind of barley to find—still contains more nutrition than many other grains.

One cup of cooked, pearled barley contains:

  • Calories: 193
  • Carbohydrates: 44 g
  • Fat: 0.7 g
  • Sodium: 5 milligrams (mg)
  • Fiber: 6 g, or 21% of the Daily Value (DV)
  • Protein: 3.5 g
  • Selenium: 13.5 micrograms (mcg), or 25% of the DV
  • Niacin: 3.2 mg, or 20% of the DV
  • Zinc: 1.3 mg, or 12% of the DV
  • Thiamin: 0.13 mg, or 11% of the DV
  • Iron: 2 mg, or 11% of the DV

The same serving is also a good source of phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and magnesium.

The robust nutrition in whole grains like barley can help prevent heart disease, improve digestive health, and support healthy metabolism. For instance, B vitamins like thiamin and niacin support metabolism and the nervous system. Iron can help prevent or treat iron deficiency anemia, which is especially common in menstruating people. Magnesium supports bone and muscle health, while selenium supports immune and cellular health.

Plus, eating high-fiber foods like whole grains can help you meet your fiber recommendations and support overall health.

Barley is a source of gluten, so it is not suitable for people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.

Also, barley is a source of fructans—carbohydrates that can cause gas, abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea in some people. As a result, it’s not a low-FODMAP food, so people following a low-FODMAP diet, including people with IBS, may want to avoid barley. 

People without digestive conditions may also be sensitive to barley as it’s a high-fiber food. Increasing your fiber intake too quickly can cause gastrointestinal symptoms like gas or bloating. If you don’t eat much fiber, try slowly increasing your intake of high-fiber foods like barley as tolerated. Also, drink enough fluids to help move the fiber through your system.

There are many ways to consume barley, and the grain is available in several forms for various uses. Some types of barley include:

  • Hulled barley: This whole grain only has the tough, inedible outer hull removed.
  • Barley grits: These are either hulled or hull-less barley that’s been cut into several pieces.
  • Barley flakes: Similar to oatmeal, these are barley kernels that have been steamed, rolled, and dried. As a result, they cook faster.
  • Barley flour: Flour prepared from dried and ground barley. It doesn’t rise like wheat flour, so it’s best to use barley flour in combination with wheat flour.
  • Pearl barley: The hull and some of the outer bran layer are removed to make pearl barley, so it’s technically a refined grain rather than a whole grain. However, pearl barley is more nutrient-dense than other refined grains. It cooks quicker than hulled barley.

You can use barley in similar ways to other whole grains. It works especially well in stews or soups since it adds thickness. Here are some ways to add barley to your diet:

  • Add cooked barley to salads
  • Stir barley into stews or soups
  • Use barley flakes in place of oats to make a porridge
  • Mix barley flour with wheat flour to prepare baked goods
  • Eat barley as a side dish in place of rice or pasta

Barley is a whole grain with many health benefits, largely due to its soluble fiber content. Research shows consuming barley can support healthy blood sugars, lower cholesterol levels, and improve digestion while reducing inflammation—all of which contribute to a lower risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes.

Barley is a source of gluten, so it’s not suitable for people with celiac disease or people following gluten-free diets. Also, barley is not a low-FODMAP food, so it may be irritable for people with IBS.

If you want to incorporate barley into your diet, try adding it to salads, stews, and baked goods or swapping out rice or pasta for barley for a fiber-rich side dish.

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