Barley Is Poised for a Comeback

Lowering Cholesterol with
Beta-Glucan-Rich Barley

In which we learn that improving your health with barley is so easy,
even a caveman could do it
By Will Block

Take away all of the culinary creations of the past
10,000 years, and what are you left with? Barley.

— Alton Brown

© Stay
o there you are, 10,000 years ago, coming home to your cave from a hard day’s work in the salt mine and wondering what Jennifer has fixed for dinner. Chances are pretty good it will involve barley. Breakfast the next morning: barley. Open your lunch pail: barley. Dinner that night: barley again! Well, at least you can spice it up with some salt, but you’re thinking, “Dang! Why can’t we ever have pizza?”

So you decide to invent pizza. You set about making the dough from . . . let’s see . . . how about barley flour? The pie is nice and round (you got the idea for that from your friend Bruce, who recently invented the wheel and now thinks he’s hot stuff). It looks kind of dull, though, so you check the pantry for something to jazz it up with. (“Hey—jazz! I should invent that too, as soon as I’ve got the pizza thing down. Funny how all the best stuff seems to have two z’s.”)

“Hmm, there’s a pot full of barley flakes. They’d look nice when scattered on top of the pie—give it some texture, y’know? But the mouthfeel still leaves something to be desired. Oh, wait . . . got it! Jen invented barley nuggets one day when she got bored from not having a TV (no z’s in that, but it still sounds good—gotta add it to the list). The nuggets are great—kind of crispy/crunchy, just what this thing needs. I wonder if Martha Stewart would approve . . . oh, right, she hasn’t been invented yet either. I think I’ll leave that to someone else.”

Barley—Give a Hoot

OK, we tried, but barley is, let’s face it, not the most exciting of subjects, despite having been favored by Roman gladiators (see the sidebar). Other than the fact that from barley comes malt, and from malt comes beer, who gives a hoot about barley? Its main use, after all, is as animal feed. Sure, people ate it for thousands of years, but it long ago fell under the shadow of the new kid on the block, wheat. That’s a shame—but barley is staged for a comeback. We should all give a hoot about barley, because it lowers cholesterol and it has a very low glycemic index!

Barley, the King of Grains

Gladiators in ancient Rome were called hordearii, or “barley men,” because of their preference for this highly nutritious grain, which had long held a reputation as being a source of strength and stamina for athletes and laborers.1 The effete wealthy class in Rome, by contrast, preferred wheat bread over barley bread. Literature throughout the ancient world stressed the health benefits and medicinal value of barley, which was often called the king of grains.

Thomas Pullicino
Barley is among the oldest of all cultivated crops. It is believed to have originated in prehistoric times in Ethiopia and western Asia, where humans used it as food for themselves and their animals.2 The lake dwellers of Switzerland used it during the Stone Age, and archaeobotanists have found evidence of its use in the Fertile Crescent as far back as 8000 B.C. (10,000 years ago!).

The chief bread grain used by the Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans and by much of Europe through the sixteenth century was barley. Over the following three centuries, it was gradually replaced by wheat and rye, for a variety of reasons. Barley is not native to the New World—it was brought here by Christopher Columbus.

Barley is a grass in the genus Hordeum, and most barleys are of the species H. vulgare, of which there are many distinct varieties—some wild, some cultivated. Barley is native to temperate regions, but it’s the most adaptable of all cereal grains and can also grow well in subarctic and subtropical regions, and even on Himalayan slopes and the near-desert regions of North Africa. It grows well in a wide range of soils and moisture levels. The world’s largest producers are Russia and Canada; other major sources are the United States (mostly in the Pacific Northwest and the northern plains states) and Australia.

About half of the world’s annual production of barley is used for livestock feed. Most of the rest is consumed by humans, mainly as cereal and in soups and stews; it’s also popular as a baby food. Barley processed for human consumption is called pot barley or, in its final stage, pearl barley. It’s produced by removing the tough hulls and the outer layers of the kernels, which are similar in shape to wheat kernels. The barley kernels can be ground into flour, rolled into flakes, or cut into nuggets. Pot barley and pearl barley have a characteristically nutty flavor that appeals to many people.

About 10% of barley goes to the production of malt. The principal use for malt is in brewing beer and ale, but it’s also used for making whisky, malt vinegar, and malted milk. Malt, in case you’ve always wondered, is a grain seed, usually barley, that is allowed to germinate and is then quickly dried before the plant develops. This process produces enzymes that can convert starch to sugars, mainly maltose.

Barley kernels vary in color, depending on the variety. The kernels, stems, and other parts of some varieties are purple, owing to their content of anthocyanin pigments, which are health-promoting flavonoids.2 All barleys are high in complex carbohydrates, including soluble fiber that is digested slowly—hence barley’s very low glycemic index. Barleys also contain considerable protein as well as B-vitamins, calcium, phosphorus, and various phytochemicals. Eat up!


  1. Newman CW. History of barley as a food source. Abstract reprinted in: Anon. The future of barley. Cereal Foods World 2005;50(5):271-7.
  2. Anon. Barley: Origin, Botany, Culture, Winter Hardiness, Genetics, Utilization, Pests. Agriculture Handbook No. 338, Science and Education Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, DC, 1979.

If that doesn’t get you fired up, it could be because you’re not aware that your life may depend—in a subtle but real sense—on reducing the glycemic index of the meals you eat. Seriously. First of all, recall that the glycemic index (GI) is a measure of how quickly the carbohydrates in a food item will be digested and delivered into your bloodstream in the form of glucose (blood sugar) after a meal. The faster that process, the higher the GI of the food (or vice versa).

Glycemic Index Is Useful to Know . . .

High-GI foods can cause transient high levels of blood sugar in your circulation. Such glucose “spikes” are harmful in two major ways:

  1. They induce the irreversible formation of harmful sugar-protein complexes called advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which can slowly damage your blood cells and many other kinds of cells throughout your body. AGEs are implicated in many of the degenerative processes that contribute to the aging process.

  2. They cause transient high levels of circulating insulin, which promotes the storage of fat and inhibits the breakdown of stored fat for energy. Thus, high insulin levels promote obesity. There’s a vicious circle here, as obesity promotes insulin resistance, which results in chronically high insulin levels, a condition called hyperinsulinemia. All of which often leads to type 2 diabetes, which is a major risk factor for (among others) cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s—which can kill you.

Got the picture? High-GI foods bad, low-GI foods good—except that it’s not quite that simple, because it’s not just the glycemic index of a food that determines its effect on your blood glucose level, but also the amount of carbohydrate in a typical serving of that food.

. . . But What Really Matters Is Glycemic Load

Take cooked carrots, for example, which have an extremely high GI of 92 (a solution of pure glucose, such as that given in a glucose tolerance test, is 100). Yikes! You might never want to eat carrots again. But wait—a carrot has only 4 grams of carbohydrate, and that relevant fact needs to be factored into the equation in order to estimate the actual quantitative effect a serving of carrots is likely to have on your blood sugar. This is done by calculating the glycemic load (GL) of carrots, which is a more realistic and useful measure than their GI.

It turns out that carrots have an extremely low GL of only 5 (GL values range from about 1 to 40, but most are in the range of about 5 to 25). Far from being unhealthy for you, carrots are great, and you’d have to eat a huge amount of them at one sitting before their high GI started to become worrisome.

Thus, glycemic load is a more realistic and useful measure of a food’s glycemic value than its glycemic index, which can be misleading, making a healthy food look bad, or vice versa.1 In general, there is no good correlation between GI and GL values, except for one: a low value of one usually means a low value of the other (but not always—remember the carrots!).

Alexander Hafemann
Barley—Low GI, Low GL

Now let’s get back to barley, an exceptionally nutritious and healthy food for humans. On average, pearl barleys have an extremely low GI—25—and a relatively low GL—11—an excellent combination. We say “on average” because for most foods, many factors can affect these values, e.g., age, ripeness, processing method, cooking method, the presence of additives (salt, sugar, spices, butter, etc.), and the presence of other foods in the same meal. Any of these could significantly change the GI and, therefore, the GL of the individual food in question—and, therefore, of the overall meal. For that matter, these values can vary from person to person, and even in the same person from day to day. So averages are all we can go on.

There are also differences among the different varieties of a given food, such as the cultivars of barley (cultivars are to barley as varietals are to grapes—they’re members of the same species, but with significant, sometimes dramatic, differences in composition and appearance). One barley cultivar that stands out is called Prowashonupana. “Prowash,” as it’s called for short, was developed in the 1990s by plant breeders at Montana State University as a hulless cultivar that’s low in starch, high in protein, and very high in fiber—it has two to three times the amount of fiber as most other cereal grains.2

Prowash Is Naturally Rich in Healthful Beta-Glucan

A major portion of the fiber in Prowash is a highly beneficial soluble fiber. It takes the form of viscous polysaccharides called beta-glucans, which are known for their ability to reduce cholesterol levels.*3 In barley, the beta-glucans are found throughout the entire kernel, whereas in most other grains, they’re concentrated in the outer bran layer and can thus easily be lost in processing.

*Since 1997, the FDA has allowed a food-industry claim regarding the ability of beta-glucan soluble fiber from whole oat sources to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, when used as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol. In 2006, based on persuasive scientific evidence, the FDA amended that claim to include barley as well.

Prowash has about twice as much beta-glucan as other barley cultivars and about three times as much as oats. This helps slow the absorption of glucose from the digestion of carbohydrates, giving Prowash an exceptionally low glycemic index. Using it in place of other grains (including other barleys) tends to minimize the overall glycemic index—and glycemic load—of a meal. This is a big plus in terms of controlling your blood sugar levels and managing your weight, and it impedes the development of insulin resistance, which can lead to diabetes.

An additional benefit of beta-glucan is that it’s a biologic response modifier, or immunomodulator, which stimulates the immune system. Its main effect in this role is to increase resistance to viral, bacterial, fungal, and parasitic infections, and to mutagens—it has antitumorigenic and anticarcinogenic effects.4

Low-Fat, High-Fiber Diets for Cholesterol Lowering . . .

In 1999, American researchers investigated the cholesterol-lowering effects of beta-glucan in 12 healthy young men (average age 29) by comparing the effects of three low-fat meals containing pastas that differed in the source of their dietary fiber.5 The pastas were: (1) a low-fiber pasta (the control meal) made with 100% commercial wheat semolina having a negligible amount of beta-glucan; (2) a high-fiber pasta in which 40% of the semolina was replaced by a barley flour artificially enriched with beta-glucan; and (3) a high-fiber pasta in which 40% of the semolina was replaced by naturally beta-glucan-rich barley flour made from Prowash.

All the men consumed each of the three test meals on three different days, 1 to 3 weeks apart. Their blood was drawn at the beginning of each meal and then repeatedly at intervals after the meal in order to monitor changes in the levels of lipids (cholesterol and triglycerides), glucose, insulin, and cholecystokinin (an intestinal hormone that responds to the presence of food by stimulating the release of pancreatic digestive enzymes and bile).

. . . Via Reverse Cholesterol Transport

The researchers’ particular interest was in reverse cholesterol transport, the process by which high-density lipoprotein (HDL) removes excess free cholesterol from the body’s tissues. It’s a complex process, the upshot of which is that HDL picks up the cholesterol—becoming thereby HDL-cholesterol (the “good cholesterol”)—and ferries it back to the liver (from whence the cholesterol had originally come—hence the term reverse transport). There the cholesterol is chemically degraded and secreted into the bile for excretion from the body.

Reverse cholesterol transport can be stimulated in the postprandial (after-meal) period if a low-fat meal is consumed. To understand the potential role of soluble fiber, such as beta-glucan, on this process, one must understand its effect in a low-fat diet. In this study, the researchers observed that both of the beta-glucan-rich barley diets lowered plasma cholesterol levels; when coupled with other evidence, this suggested that reverse cholesterol transport had occurred to an appreciable degree. They stated,5

The postprandial glucose, insulin, and cholecystokinin responses of subjects in the present study after consumption of barley-containing pasta, either naturally high in or enriched with beta-glucans, support the hypothesis that viscous polysaccharides [beta-glucans] in the diet slow the rate of carbohydrate and lipid digestion and absorption. The changes in blood cholesterol after a low-fat meal support the hypothesis that viscous polysaccharides lower plasma cholesterol, in part, by facilitating reverse cholesterol transport.

Other studies have verified the cholesterol-lowering benefits of beta-glucan, as well as its beneficial effects on blood sugar and insulin levels, which aid in weight management. We will report on those next month.


In Japan, leftover barley and rice are still staples in the diet of dogs and cats. Knowing this, we can appreciate a tiny gem by Japan’s first great haiku poet, Bashō, who lived in the seventeenth century (if you’re a fan of haiku, you’ll see the beauty in it; if not, no harm done—and no, not all haiku have 17 syllables):

Girl cat, so
thin on love
and barley.

So thin on love and barley—such a heartbreaking image, with its double meaning for “thin.” The poor, thin kitty, with no one to love her and not enough barley to eat. How ironic—we’ve suggested the possibility of becoming thin (thinner, anyway) from having barley and eating it! (Hmm, maybe we could trade the kitty some barley for a few of her lives . . .)


  1. Higdon J. Glycemic index and glycemic load. Linus Pauling Institute, Corvallis, OR, 2005.
  2. Arndt EA. Sustagrain® barley—a natural whole grain barley for today’s health and wellness needs. Abstract reprinted in: Anon. The future of barley. Cereal Foods World 2005;50(5):271-7.
  3. Kim SY, Song HJ, Lee YY, Cho KH, Roh YK. Biomedical issues of dietary fiber β-glucan. J Korean Med Sci 2006;21:781-9.
  4. Tohamy AA, El-Ghor AA, El-Nahas SM, Noshy MM. β-Glucan inhibits the genotoxicity of cyclophosphamide, adriamycin, and cisplatin. Mutat Res 2003;541:45-53.
  5. Bourdon I, Yokoyama W, Davis P, Hudson C, Backus R, Richter D, Knuckles B, Schneeman BO. Postprandial lipid, glucose, insulin, and cholecystokinin responses in men fed barley pasta enriched with β-glucan. Am J Clin Nutr 1999;69:55-63.

Will Block is the publisher and editorial director of Life Enhancement magazine.

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