Getting to Know Barley

The most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that all adults eat at least half their grains as whole grains – that’s at least 3 to 5 servings of whole grains every day. The average American eats less than one daily serving of whole grains, and some studies show that over 40% of us never eat any whole grains. So, I’ve been on a mission to try different whole grains to add variety to our meals.

One whole grain that tends to be forgotten by many is BARLEY.

As a kid, I remember loving those little white fluffy things floating in my canned vegetarian vegetable soup.  That’s the barley.  If you are like me, this is the extent of your experience with barley, you may be surprised to know that it is the world’s fourth most important cereal crop after wheat, rice, and corn.

Barley can be prepared in many ways in addition to soups and stews. It used as a hot side dish or served as a cold salad. Or eaten like oatmeal. Barley flour is used in bread, pancakes, muffins, and cookies. If you’ve never eaten barley plain, the flavor can be best described as “rich” with a mild sweetness.

Nutritionally ¾ cup cooked barley contains 160 calories, 8 grams fiber and 6 grams protein. It is an excellent source of manganese, selenium, and thiamin and a good source of magnesium, phosphorus, copper, and niacin. There has been enough research documenting barley’s role in protecting heart health that the U.S. FDA allows barley foods to claim that it reduces the risk of coronary heart disease.

I went looking for barley at my local store.  It’s in the section with the dry beans and rice. I had to look high up on the shelf and found “pearled barley.”  Barley has a particularly tough inedible hull that adheres to the grain kernel. This hull is difficult to remove without losing some of the bran. The easiest way to get this off is to scrape or “pearl” it. That’s why it’s called “pearled barley.”  This process does remove some of the bran. Thusly, “pearled” barley is not technically a whole grain.

I contacted Kelly Toups, Director of Nutrition at the Whole Grains Council about only being able to find “pearled” barley on the grocer’s shelves. She responded that this is not a big problem because barley is different than other grains because the fiber is distributed throughout the grain kernel, rather than being concentrated in the bran.  This means that even pearled barley has a rather impressive amount of fiber.  Barley has 17% fiber which is the highest of all the whole grains. Comparing it to other whole grain foods: brown rice contains 3.5% ?ber, corn about 7%, oats 10% and wheat about 12%.

Toups told me that “whole grain barley does offer higher levels of many essential nutrients when compared with pearled barley.  One 45-gram serving of hulled (whole grain) barley has approximately an additional gram of fiber and protein, and has about twice as much magnesium as pearled barley.”

If you want to get the entire whole grain goodness of barley look for hulled barley or hulless barley. If you can’t find it at your store’s whole-grain aisle, barley can be purchased online.

Tips for cooking barley:  combine one cup of dry uncooked barley with three cups of liquid. This will expand to about 3 ½ cups of cooked grain. Whole grain barley can take 45-60 minutes to cook when simmered slowly. It can be helpful to use a rice cooker since you can cook almost unattended.

Reference:  Oldways Whole Grain Council, https://wholegrainscouncil.org

Cheryle Jones Syracuse, MS
Professor Emeritus, The Ohio State University

 

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updated on 11-20-2019