Should Barley Deserve More Attention in Your Diet?

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Barley is a whole grain packed with nutrition and health benefits.  It’s locally grown and is Canada’s fourth largest crop, after wheat, canola and corn. It’s considered an ancient grain grown and harvested for thousands of years.  Even though it’s been around a long time, it’s a grain we may not eat too often, but one we may consider incorporating more into our diet to reap its many benefits.

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Benefits of barley

Barley is an excellent source of both insoluble and soluble fibre.  The insoluble fibre aids with regular bowel movements, while the soluble fibre may help control blood glucose (sugar) levels and help lower blood cholesterol.  High-fibre whole grains are also digested more slowly than refined grains and may help promote the feeling of fullness for longer after eating, which may help with overeating and weight management.

Like oats, barley also contains the soluble fibre beta-glucan which has been shown to help lower cholesterol, which is a risk factor for heart disease. Similar to oats, Health Canada has also authorized a health claim manufactures can utilize stating barley fibre helps lower cholesterol, when certain conditions are met as outlined by Health Canada.

In addition to its fibre content, barley also offers a variety of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.  It is also low in fat, sodium and sugar. Canada’s Food Guide recommends that Canadians eat whole grain foods and to choose whole grain foods with little to no added sodium, sugars or saturated fat.

Types of barley

There are different types of barley available, with each variety having different processing methods applied:

  • Hulled Barley (also called Hulless or Dehulled Barley) – this is the least processed variety of barley with the outer inedible husk (hull) being removed.  It still contains all three parts of the seed or kernel including the bran, germ and endosperm and is therefore considered whole grain and has more fibre, vitamins and minerals than refined grains.  
  • Pot (Scotch) Barley – this type of barley has been processed a bit further so it cooks faster, but it’s not as processed as pearl barley and retains some of the bran layer.  This variety isn’t considered a whole grain.
  • Pearl Barley – this variety has been processed even further with the bran layer removed.  It is therefore not considered a whole grain and has lost some key nutrients.  Pearl barley cooks faster than hulled and pot barley.
  • Barley Flakes – these flakes can be made with hulled barley, pot barley or from pearl barley so read the label to find out which are used as only flakes made from hulled barley are considered whole grain.  Barley flakes resemble rolled oats, as they are created the same way, by steaming kernels, rolling them and drying them.  Due to their processing barley flakes cook faster.
  • Barley Grits – these grits are made when barley kernels are cut into several pieces and like barley flakes can be either whole grain or refined, so read the label carefully.
  • Barley Flour – this can be made from whole grain or refined barley.  Barley flour can partially or completely replace all-purpose flour depending on the recipe.  For muffins, quick breads and cookies, you can substitute barley flour at a one-to-one ratio. However, for yeast bread recipes you can replace up to 25% of the all-purpose flour with barley flour.

While hulled barley is the most nutritious in terms of fibre content, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, the good news is that the soluble fibre in barley is found in all types of barley, regardless of the processing methods as the fibre is located throughout the kernel and not just in the outer bran layer.  Most of the barley found in typical supermarkets is pearl barley, and although technically a refined grain, it’s still nutritious and a good choice.  

How to incorporate more barley into your diet

  • Barley has a nutty and chewy texture and can easily be substituted for rice or quinoa in any of your favourite recipes.  Try your next stir-fry or curry dish over a bed of barley instead of rice.  Also try barley in your next risotto dish.
  • Barley is great in any soup, stew or casserole.  You can toss it in your favourite salad or try it in side dishes.
  • Try using barley flakes as you would oatmeal and enjoy a bowl for breakfast and top it with your favourite berries.
  • Try baking with barley and use barley flour in breads, muffins, pancakes or cookies.

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