(Re)Discovering Barley

Barley.

What came to your mind after reading that word? 

Beer? 

Beef and barley stew, perhaps?

What about “kidney-friendly”? Or “a delicious, nutty, sweet flavor”?

Within the world of whole grains, barley is an underdog. Even though it is full of flavor and nutrition, barley is unappreciated and placed at a distant second to “mainstream grains” such as wheat and oats. 

It was not always this way. Throughout history, civilizations around the globe have been built on barley-rich diets. Yet the benefits of barley were gradually forgotten over the millennia. Now, scientific and medical research is ushering in a re-discovery of barley as a food.

In short, the story of barley is an epic, Cinderella-style tale worth telling.

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Barley has a remarkable history, being revered throughout antiquity and playing key roles in the building of multiple civilizations. For instance:

  • Barley was among the first grains to be domesticated by mankind.  Genetic studies of wild barley suggest this occurred somewhere in the region of Syria-Israel (here).

  • Barley was historically an important dietary grain in East Asia, North Africa, and Europe (here).

  • In ancient Egypt, Greece, and India, barley was even used for medical applications (here).

  • Roman gladiators ate a barley-rich diet, reportedly believing that barley increased their strength and earning them the nickname “barley men”(here).

Clearly, barley has been fundamental to daily life in many parts of the ancient world. Yet over the past 2,500 years, barley has experienced declining popularity compared to other grains like wheat and oats. Why?

Ironically, the importance of barley may have been its downfall. In the Roman empire, barley appears to have increasingly fell behind wheat in popularity. As a result, refined wheat was associated with wealth while barley was cast aside as simply common food.

Indeed, over much of the past 2,500 years, barley seems to have competed against wheat and oats in an epic “Battle of the Grains” – with barley as the loser in western civilizations.

But is such a distinction justified?  Is refined white flour truly better than barley?  

From a superficial standpoint, wheat contains more gluten than barley so when baking bread for example, wheat flour will rise more easily than barley flour.  From this perspective, one can see how ancient bakers & consumers may have preferred the texture of all-wheat bread. 

In ancient Greece, Aristotle reportedly believed that wheat was healthier than barley. However, Pliney the Elder and Hippocrates apparently viewed barley to be healthy and even useful for treating some ailments (here). Indeed, diverging opinions like these may have started the epic feud between wheat and barley.

After such a historic fall from grace, barley is now experiencing a redemption of sorts due to recent scientific and clinical research. Interestingly, barley consumption is being associated with several specific health benefits, based on studies with foods such as barley porridge or barley bread. A few highlights are sampled below:

  • Cholesterol Control: Several clinical studies show that barley can help lower cholesterol in healthy individuals as well as people with moderately elevated cholesterol.  This is believed to be due to soluble fiber within barley (here).

  • Low Glycemic: Barley has a glycemic index of 28 and is thus a low glycemic food (threshold is 55).  Additionally, barley may have a role in helping control blood glucose levels. In a small study with young adults (n=19), eating cooked pearled barley as a late-night meal displayed lower blood glucose compared to eating white wheat bread at night (here). The effect of barley was still seen at lunch the following day, 16 hours after the late-night eating.

  • Pre-biotic: Within the intestinal tract, an intriguing role for barley as a pre-biotic is also emerging (here and here). Barley contains insoluble dietary fiber, which is not absorbed within the intestinal tract and may play a role in promoting healthy gut flora.

While giving due respect to Aristotle, this emerging clinical data does not seem to support the idea the wheat is more nutritious than barley. Rather, it seems that increasing our daily consumption of barley would be beneficial for the general population.

Barley is recommended for Kidney diets

For people suffering from kidney disease, such as patients with kidney failure on dialysis, barley is a recommended whole grain due to its relatively lower phosphorus content. In kidney disease, elevated blood levels of phosphorus can be cause for medical concern. Thus, patients have been long-advised to monitor and limit their dietary intake of phosphorus. Compared to oats, for example, barley contains approximately 35% less phosphorus (USDS database).

So if barley consumption is a healthy idea, and even recommended for some individuals such as patients with kidney disease, how does one actually obtain whole grain barley? 

Even though barley is important for brewing, beer is of course not a source of whole grain barley. Furthermore, pearled barley is not whole grain since the bran layer has been removed. At least in the USA, it would seem that we have largely forgotten about whole grain barley.

Some time ago at Everbloom Health, we recognized the difficulty of finding convenient and affordable whole grain barley foods. In the case of dialysis patients, this left patients with very few recommended whole grain barley options. In our eyes, this was a problem in need of a good food.

If necessity is the driver of innovation, then the lack of whole grain barley was our catalyst for developing Burl Barley Granola. Made with whole grain rolled barley, we purposefully made our granola to provide a simple and delicious way for individuals to increase their consumption of barley.

For individuals following dialysis diets, this may provide a convenient means of eating well and staying within their dietary guidelines. For others, such as individuals simply trying to eat healthy, our Burl Barley Granola may compliment their existing diet alongside other excellent whole grains.

Perhaps in some small way, Burl Barley Granola may help barley, wheat, and oats once again be viewed as complementary rather than competing grains.