Nutraceutical Benefits of Barley Consumption
Authors: Vikender Kaur, Jyoti Kumari and Y.S. Rathi

Barley (Hordeum Vulgare L.) is a small, oval-shaped grain with a nutty flavor that has contributed to the human diet for at least 10,000 years. Barley was first assumed as human food but developed gradually into a feed, malting and brewing grain. Barley is most widely adapted cereal grain species with production from fertile to deserts than any other cereal crop. It is still a major food source for some cultures in Asia (Himalayan nations) and northern Africa like Morocco and Ethiopia (Newman & Newman, 2006). Barley is available in hulled kernels, flakes, grits, pearls (i.e., a form of barley that is polished in a process that removes the bran layer, decreasing nutrition), and ground flour. Although all of the forms of barley are excellent dietary sources of fiber and nutrients, hulled kernels of barley are the most nutritionally valuable. Barley grain is composed of carbohydrates, proteins, dietary fiber, vitamins and minerals (TABLE 1). Barley is used in livestock diet as an energy source. The high levels of available essential amino acids present in barley contribute to the formulation of low cost diets that are nutritionally effective.

Barley is important to civilization also. Aside from its use as food, barley is the root of the English measurement system. In 1324 Edward II of England standardized the inch as equal to "three grains of barley, dry and round, placed end to end lengthwise." The foot, the yard, the mile, and all other English measurements followed on. While inches and feet have given way to centimeters and meters in most of the world, barley is still central to the world's food supply. In fact, it's the world's fourth most important cereal crop after wheat, rice, and corn.

Barley is highest in fiber of all the whole grains, with common varieties clocking in at about 17% fiber, and some, such as the variety marketed by Conagra as Sustagrain, having up to 30% fiber (For comparison, brown rice contains 3.5% fiber, corn about 7%, oats 10% and wheat about 12%.) While the fiber in most grains is concentrated largely in the outer bran layer, barley's fiber is found throughout the whole grain, which may account for its extraordinarily high levels. But the goodness of whole grains comes from more than fiber. Whole grain barley is high in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals essential to health (Madhujith and Shahidi, 2008). However, much of the barley eaten is pearled or pearl barley, which is missing some or its entire bran layer. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommend 3 or more grams of soluble fiber intake per day. One cup of cooked pearled barley (the most commonly sold form) provides 3 grams of soluble fiber. Barley Antipasto Salad, Baked Chicken with Apples and Barley, Thai Barley Stir-Fry, Apple Barley Bread, Barley Chocolate Chip and Walnut Cookies are some famous recipes prepared from barley all over the world. Nonalcoholic drinks such as barley water and barley tea (called mugicha in Japan), as coffee substitute, caffe d'orzo (coffee of barley) are made by boiling barley in water. Health conscious consumers trend to use increasingly novel, valuable grain sources and products in their daily based diets. Blends exploiting favorable attributes of barley may be a suitable way to use this valuable crop in milling products and in larger food industrial scale (Lovis, 2003).

TABLE 1: Composition of Barley Grain

% Kernel (by weight)

Key nutrients
Hulls (husks)

9 – 14

Cellulose, lignin, silica, pentosan, phenolic compounds
Seed coat

5.5 – 6.5

Cellulose, lipid
Aleurone layer

11 – 13

Lipid, protein, β-glucan, arabinoxylan, minerals, vitamins

2.5 – 4.0

Lipid, storage protein, cellulose, sugars, minerals, vitamins

65 – 68

Starch, protein, β-glucan, arabinoxylan

Source: Palmer, 1989


• One of the earliest known sites where barley was grown was on the southwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee (now Israel) dating back 23,000 years.

• In ancient Egypt, barley was held in high esteem. Barley was used in religious ceremonies and pictured on many early Egyptian coins.

• Roman Gladiators were called Hordearii, or Barley Men. It's said that they believed barley gave them greater strength and stamina than other foods.

• Ayurvedic physicians in ancient India report treating a condition described as sweet urine disease - thought to have been diabetes - by switching patients from rice to barley.

• Barley is a highly-adaptable crop, growing in places as disparate as north of the Arctic circle, in tropical Ethiopia, and at high altitudes in the Andes mountains of South America.


• The soluble fiber in barley is called beta-glucan. Beta-glucan binds with water and slows the digestive process, which allows the body to better manage postprandial (i.e., after eating) glucose and insulin responses, increases the volume of intestinal contents, which hinders the absorption of cholesterol (Broihier, 2009; Ahmad et al., 2009; Zanteson, 2012). The added bulk of barley also promotes more regular bowel movements, which improves intestinal health, increases bile acid excretion into the intestines, which results in lower serum cholesterol levels.

• New research even indicates that beta-glucans may be radio-protective. They may help our bodies stand up better to chemotherapy, radiation therapy and nuclear emergencies.

• Colonic flora (i.e., "good" bacteria) is able to use some of the soluble fiber from barley to form short-chain fatty acids, which can promote intestinal health and may help to resolve abnormalities in the intestinal mucosa in persons with conditions such as ulcerative colitis.

• Barley has been shown to lower blood pressure.

• Barley is a good source of the phytonutrients known as lignans, the most notable of which is 7-hydroxymatairesinol. Lignans are metabolized by the flora in the colon to form enterolactone and enterodiol, which have estrogen-like effects. Increasing serum levels of enterolactones may help to protect against hormone-dependent cancers such as breast and prostate cancer.

• Hull-less barley can serve as a functional food that can prevent metabolic syndrome caused by high-fat and high-sucrose diets (Lingxiao et al., 2014; Bucklan, 2008).

• Numerous studies have been conducted to determine the benefits of barley consumption in relation to the prevention or management of diabetes mellitus, type 2 (DM2). Studies demonstrated that the consumption of barley porridge improves postprandial glycemic response and that the regular intake of white rice combined with barley can play a role in the prevention of DM2 and other metabolic diseases (Sakuma et al., 2009; Thondre et al., 2012). Barley's ability to control blood sugar may be exceptional, offering an important tool against rising rates of diabetes.

• Researchers also found evidence that consumption of barley-derived beta-glucan as an ingredient in a beverage may improve insulin sensitivity in individuals with hyperglycemia (Bays et al., 2011).

• Scientists have noted that barley intake improves lipid metabolism and bowel function. Barley consumption is associated with significant lowering of total and LDL cholesterol levels and could be an effective strategy for lowering blood cholesterol and improving lipid profiles in both men and women (AbuMweiss et al., 2011; Bird et al., 2008; Poppitt, 2007). In fact, since 2005, the U.S. FDA has allowed barley foods to claim that they reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.

• Barley has more protein than corn, brown rice, millet, sorghum or rye, and is higher in fiber and lower in soluble (starch) carbohydrates than almost all other whole grains.

• Barley may help you feel full longer, and thereby help you control your weight.

• Barley - even pearl barley - may help reduce visceral fat and waist circumference.

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About Author / Additional Info:
I am a Scientist at ICAR-NBPGR.