Barley is one of the world’s oldest cultivated foods, dating back 10,000 years to the Middle East. Here are five good reasons to eat it.
- Barley is the best food source of beta glucan, a soluble fiber also found in oats that can lower blood cholesterol; it contains pectin, too, another soluble fiber. According to a 2010 analysis in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which pooled data from 11 clinical trials, barley beta glucan (3 or more grams a day) significantly decreased total and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, but had no effect on HDL (“good”) cholesterol. Though the evidence is mixed, barley may also help reduce triglycerides.
- It has more total fiber (including the insoluble type, which aids digestion) than other grains. A cup of cooked barley contains 6 grams, compared to 3.5 grams in the same amount of long-grain brown rice, for instance. It also has more fiber than oatmeal, whole-wheat bread, whole-wheat couscous, quinoa and spelt.
- Barley provides protein, iron, copper, selenium, zinc, potassium and B vitamins, plus beneficial phytochemicals.
- Like other fiber-rich grains, barley may aid in weight control (by increasing feelings of fullness) and in blood sugar control. And some research, including a 2008 Japanese study in Plant Foods for Human Nutrition, has found that barley reduces visceral fat—the fat surrounding organs that’s linked to increased risk of diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and other problems.
- Barley appears to have prebiotic activity, which means it stimulates the growth of beneficial bacteria in the large intestine. More research is needed, though, to know if this translates into any health benefits.
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- Because of its cholesterol-lowering effects, barley can carry a FDA-approved health claim that it reduces the risk of heart disease, similar to that allowed for oats. To qualify, whole barley and dry milled barley products (such as flakes, grits and flour) must have at least 0.75 grams of soluble fiber per serving.
- With the exception of pearled barley, all barley products are “whole grains.” But even pearled barley, which has had its bran layer stripped during processing, is rich in fiber, since the fiber is found throughout the barley kernel.
- Add cooked barley to stews, soups, salads, and other grain dishes. For an oatmeal alternative, cook up barley flakes or barley grits. Use barley flour in baked goods. You can also find barley in some prepared soups, pilaf mixes, cereals such as granola, crackers and snack bars. Avoid barley if you have gluten intolerance or celiac disease.