Barley is a cereal grain with a chewy texture and mild, nutty flavor.
It’s the seed of a type of grass that grows in temperate climates throughout the world and one of the first grains to have been farmed by ancient civilizations.
In fact, archeological evidence suggests that barley was grown in Egypt over 10,000 years ago (
Though it grows wild in regions of western Asia and northeast Africa, it’s widely cultivated for human and animal food and for use in beer and whiskey production.
With 144 million tons produced in 2014, barley is the fourth most produced grain worldwide — after corn, rice and wheat (2).
This article discusses the health benefits of barley and how to add it to your diet.
Hulled barley is considered a whole grain, as only the inedible outer shell has been removed during processing.
However, the more commonly available pearled barley is not a whole grain because the fiber-containing bran has been removed.
Though pearled barley is still a good source of some nutrients, hulled barley is the healthier option.
A diet high in whole grains has been linked to a lower risk of chronic diseases.
In a large study in over 360,000 people, those with the highest consumption of whole grains, such as barley, had a 17% lower risk of death from all causes, including cancer and diabetes, compared to those with the lowest whole-grain intake (
Other studies have shown that eating whole grains may reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes and obesity (
The benefits of whole-grain barley may stem from not only its fiber content but also its phytonutrients, which are plant compounds with beneficial effects on health (
Eating whole grains, such as hulled barley, has been linked to a decreased risk of chronic diseases and death. Hulled barley contains fiber and other plant chemicals that are beneficial for health.
Barley is a whole grain that is packed with nutrients. It doubles in size when it cooks, so keep that in mind when reading the nutrition facts.
One-half cup (100 grams) of uncooked, hulled barley contains the following nutrients (6):
- Calories: 354
- Carbs: 73.5 grams
- Fiber: 17.3 grams
- Protein: 12.5 grams
- Fat: 2.3 grams
- Thiamine: 43% of the Reference Daily Intake (RDI)
- Riboflavin: 17% of the RDI
- Niacin: 23% of the RDI
- Vitamin B6: 16% of the RDI
- Folate: 5% of the RDI
- Iron: 20% of the RDI
- Magnesium: 33% of the RDI
- Phosphorus: 26% of the RDI
- Potassium: 13% of the RDI
- Zinc: 18% of the RDI
- Copper: 25% of the RDI
- Manganese: 97% of the RDI
- Selenium: 54% of the RDI
The main type of fiber in barley is beta-glucan, a soluble fiber that forms a gel when combined with fluid. Beta-glucan, which is also found in oats, may help lower cholesterol and improve blood sugar control (
Additionally, barley contains antioxidants such as vitamin E, beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin, which help protect against and repair cell damage caused by oxidative stress (
Barley contains many important vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. What’s more, it’s a good source of beta-glucan, a fiber which may help lower cholesterol and blood sugar.
Barley may help lower blood sugar and insulin levels, which may reduce your risk of diabetes.
Whole-grain barley is a good source of fiber, including the soluble fiber beta-glucan, which slows the absorption of sugar by binding with it in your digestive tract (
In one study in 10 overweight women who ate barley or oats plus glucose, both oats and barley decreased blood sugar and insulin levels. However, barley was far more effective, reducing levels by 59–65%, compared to 29–36% with oats (
Another study in 10 healthy men found that those who ate barley with dinner had 30% better insulin sensitivity after breakfast the next morning, compared to men who ate a refined wheat bread with dinner (
Additionally, a review of 232 scientific studies has linked whole-grain breakfast cereal consumption — including cereals containing barley — to a lower risk of diabetes (
A study in 17 obese women with an increased risk of insulin resistance showed that a breakfast cereal containing 10 grams of beta-glucan from barley significantly decreased post-meal blood sugar levels compared to other types of cereals (
Furthermore, barley has a low glycemic index (GI) — a measure of how quickly a food raises blood sugar. In fact, barley’s score of 28 is the lowest of all grains (
Studies have shown that eating barley may lower blood sugar and insulin levels. Additionally, it has a low glycemic index, making it a smart choice for people with high blood sugar.
One-half cup (100 grams) of uncooked hulled barley packs 17.3 grams of fiber, or 69% and 46% of the RDI for women and men respectively (6).
Dietary fiber increases the bulk of your stool, making it easier to pass through your digestive tract (
Barley may help relieve constipation. In one study in 16 people with chronic constipation, 9 grams of a sprouted barley supplement daily for 10 days followed by a doubled dose for 10 days increased both the frequency and volume of bowel movements (
Additionally, barley has been shown to improve symptoms of ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease. In a six-month study, 21 people with moderate ulcerative colitis experienced relief when given 20–30 grams of a sprouted barley supplement (
Barley may also promote the growth of good bacteria within your digestive tract. Beta-glucan fiber in barley may help feed healthy gut bacteria, increasing their probiotic activity (
In a four-week study in 28 healthy individuals, 60 grams of barley a day increased a beneficial type of bacteria in the gut that may help reduce inflammation and improve blood sugar balance (
Barley is high in fiber, which is necessary for proper digestion. Studies have shown that eating barley can reduce constipation, improve symptoms of certain bowel conditions and increase the number of beneficial gut bacteria.
Eating barley may have other health benefits as well.
May Aid Weight Loss
Since the human body cannot digest fiber, foods high in fiber add volume to your diet without increasing calories. This makes high-fiber foods useful for people trying to lose weight.
A review of 10 studies on whole grains found that while some grains, such as barley, rye and oats, increased feelings of fullness after a meal, whole-grain wheat and corn did not (
In two studies, people who ate barley for breakfast experienced lower levels of hunger at lunch and ate less at later meals, compared to those who ate rice or whole wheat (
In another study, rats fed a type of barley particularly high in beta-glucan fiber ate 19% less than those fed barley with less beta-glucan. What’s more, the animals eating the higher-beta-glucan barley lost weight (
One of the ways barley may affect hunger and fullness is by decreasing levels of ghrelin, a hormone responsible for feelings of hunger (
May Help Lower Cholesterol
Several studies have shown that eating barley may have beneficial effects on cholesterol.
A diet high in soluble fiber — which barley contains — has been shown to lower total cholesterol and “bad” LDL cholesterol by 5–10% (
In one five-week study in 18 men with high cholesterol, eating a diet with 20% of calories coming from barley lowered total cholesterol by 20%, reduced “bad” LDL cholesterol by 24% and increased “good” HDL cholesterol by 18% (
In another study in 44 men with high cholesterol, eating a mixture of rice and pearled barley reduced “bad” LDL cholesterol and decreased belly fat, compared to a control group eating rice alone (
Barley may have other benefits for health, including weight loss and improvements in cholesterol levels.
Whole grains are generally a good addition to anyone’s diet. However, some people may want to avoid barley.
First, it’s a whole grain that, like wheat and rye, contains gluten. Therefore, it’s not an appropriate choice for anyone with celiac disease or other intolerances to wheat.
Additionally, barley contains short-chain carbohydrates called fructans, which are a fermentable type of fiber. Fructans may cause gas and bloating in people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or other digestive disorders (
Therefore, if you have IBS or a sensitive digestive tract, you may want to avoid barley.
Lastly, since barley has a strong effect on blood sugar levels, you may want to exercise caution while eating it if you have diabetes and are taking any blood-sugar-lowering medications or insulin (
Whole grains, such as barley, are healthy additions to most diets. However, people with celiac disease or other intolerances to wheat should refrain from barley. Those who take blood-sugar-lowering medications should use caution.
Though barley makes up only 0.36% of cereal grains consumed in the US, it’s easy to add to your diet (
Barley comes in a variety of forms:
- Hulled barley: This is the whole-grain version of barley that has only the outer, inedible hull removed. It’s chewier and takes longer to cook, compared to other types of barley.
- Pearl barley: This type of barley has been partially steamed and its hull and bran removed. Pearl barley cooks more quickly than hulled barley but is lower in nutrients.
- Barley flakes: Barley flakes are flattened and sliced, similar to rolled oats. They cook quickly but are lower in nutrients than hulled barley.
- Barley grits: Barley grits are made from barley that has been toasted and cracked. They vary in nutrient content depending on their source (hulled or pearled barley).
You can use hulled barley as a substitute for other whole grains, such as rice, quinoa, oats or buckwheat.
To cook barley, rinse the grains under cold running water, removing any hulls. Then, cook it using a 1:3 ratio of barley to water — for example, for 0.5 cups of barley, use 1.5 cups of water.
Pearled barley cooks in about an hour, whereas hulled barley takes about 1.5 hours to become tender.
Here are some ways to add barley to your diet:
- Try barley flakes as a breakfast porridge instead of oats.
- Add it to soups and stews.
- Mix barley flour with wheat flour in baked goods.
- Make a grain salad with cooked barley, vegetables and dressing.
- Eat it as a side dish instead of rice or quinoa.
- Try drinking barley water.
Barley is a versatile grain that can be substituted for any other whole grain in salads, side dishes, soups and stews.
Barley is high in fiber, especially beta-glucan, which may reduce cholesterol and blood sugar levels. It may also aid weight loss and improve digestion.
Whole-grain, hulled barley is more nutritious than refined, pearled barley. It can be substituted for any whole grain and easily added to your diet.