Barley was one of the first cultivated grains on the planet, grown in the Nile’s fertile crescent some 10,000 years ago. Since then it has been used in everything from bread to beer.
Barley is prized as a versatile cereal grain with a rich nutlike flavor and a chewy, pasta-like consistency. Sprouted barley is naturally high in maltose, a sugar that serves as the basis for malt syrup sweetener. When fermented, of course, barley is used as an ingredient in beer and other alcoholic beverages.
In addition to its hearty flavor and consistency, barley is rich in nutrients including molybdenum, manganese, dietary fiber, selenium, copper, vitamin B1, chromium, phosphorus, magnesium, and niacin.
In a study of 25 adults with high cholesterol published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, adding barley to the diet recommended by the American Heart Association lowered cholesterol levels in all subjects. Barley and other whole grains rich in magnesium have also been linked to lowering the risk of type 2 diabetes.
While barley is often used in soups and breakfast cereals, it can also be incorporated into other dishes. For example, barley can be a great substitute for rice or risotto, adding a richer, nuttier flavor than rice alone. Barley–especially hulled varieties described below–also has more protein and fiber than rice, including brown rice.
Not All the Same
Heirloom barleys include buffalo and prairie varieties that are hulled–meaning the hull is intact. They are black to purple in color, 15 percent protein, high in cholesterol-fighting beta glucans, and a tasty source of Potassium, Iron, and Calcium. Barleys are also high in the disease-fighting antioxidants known as anthocyanins. In one test for ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity), prairie barley tested over 26 percent higher than the much-lauded superfood blueberries. Semi-pearled purple buffalo barley is a new option that shortens the cooking time to a more convenient 10 minutes.
Pearl barley is the most commonly available type of barley. With pearl barley, the outer husk of the grain is removed and the barley is further refined with a polishing process. Typical pearl barleys have are about 7 percent protein–less than half what hulled barleys deliver–and fewer nutrients due to the hulling and polishing processes.
To increase the health benefits from barley, it’s recommended that the uncooked grains be soaked and sprouted. Sprouting whole grains is believed to help them release more nutrients. This makes it easier for the body to absorb and use the grain’s minerals.
Barley is also available as barley flakes. Barley flakes are similar to oats, and are often used as an oat substitute. Barley flakes have a sweet nut-like flavor and can make a flavorful addition to baked goods like granola, cookies, breads, or as an extender for meatloaf.
Barley flakes can also be heated with milk or water and used for a hot breakfast cereal in place of oatmeal. A 1 cup serving of oatmeal contains about 4 grams of fiber, on par with many fruits. A cup of barley, on the other hand, contains 13 grams of fiber. Barley packs a protein punch, delivering 12 grams per serving. Oatmeal delivers just half that per serving.