Is Barley Gluten-Free?

Medically reviewed by Natalie Butler, RD, LD on November 30, 2016Written by Annette McDermott on November 30, 2016

Overview

No. Barley contains gluten. It contains around 5 to 8 percent gluten, so it shouldn’t be consumed by people with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

Gluten is found in many whole grains, including wheat and rye. Gluten is a group of proteins that work like glue to help foods hold their shape. In some people, it causes inflammation of the small intestine, a condition known as celiac disease. People who don’t have celiac disease but who still experience symptoms after eating gluten may have non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

What is barley used for?

barley and gluten

Barley is a cereal grain and member of the grass family. It’s adaptable to both dry and wet environments, so barley is farmed in many parts of the United States and throughout the world.

Only a small percent of barley produced in the United States is used for human consumption. Most barley (95 percent) is used for animal feed and to make malt to produce beer.

Barley is processed in several ways, including:

  • hulled barley or whole-grain barley has had its inedible outer shell carefully removed to avoid nutrient loss (this is the least processed version of barley)
  • pearled barley has had its tough, inedible outer shell removed and then polished (nutrient losses occur more often with pearled barley than in hulled or whole-grain barley)
  • barley flour is made of ground pearled barley or whole-grain barley
  • barley flakes resemble oatmeal made of pearled or whole-grain barley
  • barley grits are made from small pieces of pearled or whole-grain barley
  • barley malt is made by soaking and drying barley kernels and allowing them to germinate

How to identify barley on food labels

Like wheat and other grains that contain gluten, barley can be tricky to identify. It has several aliases and is often hiding in plain sight. Barley is used as a thickener and a flavor enhancer in many processed foods.

Barley may be found in:

  • food coloring
  • soups
  • stews
  • beer
  • brewer’s yeast
  • cereals
  • snack foods
  • protein bars
  • brown rice syrup
  • malted milkshakes
  • malted milk
  • malt vinegar
  • medications

On food labels, barley is referred to as:

  • malted barley flour
  • barley flour
  • barley flavoring
  • barley enzymes
  • malt extract
  • malt flavoring
  • maltose (malt sugar)
  • malt syrup
  • dextrimaltose
  • caramel coloring (when made from barley malt)

According to Gluten Free Watchdog, some so-called gluten-free products may still contain barley. If you’re avoiding gluten, read food labels carefully.

Gluten-free alternatives to barley

You don’t have to give up whole grains if barley and gluten are off-limits. Some gluten-free grains that may be used instead of barley are:

  • buckwheat
  • amaranth
  • corn
  • millet
  • quinoa
  • teff
  • wild rice
  • sorghum

Though beans and lentils are in the pulse or legume category, they offer many of the same nutrients that whole grains do. Green lentils are the best lentil choice as a whole-grain replacement because they hold their shape.

Oats are naturally gluten-free, but some brands may be contaminated with wheat and can’t claim gluten-free status. Brands that offer uncontaminated oats are:

If you’re a beer lover, try these gluten-free beers:

The health benefits of whole grains

barley and gluten

There are many benefits of adding whole grains to your diet. Whole grains are low in fat and a good source of complex carbs and fiber. Studies have linked whole grains to a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, and some types of cancer. But if you are sensitive to gluten, some whole grains may make you sick.

All whole grains are good for you. They’re a much better diet choice than refined or enriched grains. Don’t be nervous to think outside the whole grain box and explore less popular grains such as buckwheat, millet, and amaranth.

Gluten-free, whole-grain recipes

Get the health benefits of whole grains with these gluten-free recipes:

Buckwheat pancakes

Even though it has wheat in its name, buckwheat is gluten-free. This recipe combines buckwheat flour with buttermilk and other common ingredients to create light and airy pancakes. The recipe includes instructions for a roasted strawberry topping, but you could also use your favorite fruit or gluten-free syrup. Get the recipe.

Warm quinoa breakfast

Kick boring porridge to the curb, and try this quinoa breakfast cereal instead. It features quinoa cooked in almond milk and bananas. It’s topped with cinnamon, dried cranberries, and flaxseed. Get the recipe.

Skillet amaranth cornbread

Ground amaranth and cornmeal add authentic flavor to this cornbread recipe. Get the recipe.

Millet sandwich bread

If you want to make homemade, gluten-free bread for sandwiches, give this recipe that uses millet flour a try. You’ll need to purchase some common gluten-free ingredients such as potato starch and tapioca flour, but the bread comes together easily. Get the recipe.

Teff date bread

Teff, pitted dates, psyllium husks, and spices make this recipe stand out. It’s great for breakfast or dessert. Get the recipe.

Bottom line

Barley is a healthy whole grain, but it’s not gluten-free. Its gluten content is low, but it may only take a tiny amount to make people with celiac disease sick. To make sure you don’t accidentally eat barley, learn how to identify it on food labels. Be sure to read labels every time you shop. Food manufacturers often change ingredients without warning.

Try experimenting with ways to add gluten-free whole grains to your diet. Buckwheat and quinoa are good substitutes for barley in soups and stews. Brown rice or green lentils are also great substitutes in many recipes.

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