Health benefits of barley were observed as long as 2,400 years ago by Indian physicians who recommended substituting barley for white rice, along with losing weight and increasing activity, to treat the disease we now identify as type 2 diabetes. But, can it prevent heart disease?
Barley is a grain commonly found in the dough, drinks, and various cuisines of every culture. It is one of the most broadly consumed grains in the world. It is high in fiber, has twice the protein and almost half the calories of oats as well as an important consideration for people with weight or dietary concerns. Barley can help in lowering blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol, and for promoting weight loss. It is good for digestive problems like stomach pain, diarrhea, and inflammatory bowel conditions.
Whole barley contains all eight essential amino acids, making it a complete protein. Raw barley is also a good source of niacin and vitamin B6, as well as the minerals phosphorus, iron, magnesium, and zinc. One cup of barley provides 14.2 percent of the recommended daily value for niacin. Barley also provides some lutein, which may help preserve vision.
Barley is very rich in fiber—nearly 16 percent dietary fiber by weight. Fiber helps prevent constipation, and it helps the colon stay healthy by helping intestinal flora produce butyric acid. Dietary fiber also reduces blood cholesterol levels, and whole-grain barley contains enough soluble fiber that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recognized it as a food that can reduce the risk of heart disease. Taken together, Barley’s fiber and its B vitamins, which help preserve the health of blood vessels, make barley an especially heart-healthy grain.
Barley provides magnesium, a mineral that acts as a co-factor for more than 300 enzymes, including enzymes involved in glucose metabolism and the production of insulin. Studies have shown that barley is more effective in stabilizing glucose and insulin responses than oats. It appears to regulate blood sugar for up to 10 hours.
Most of the benefits of barley come from the whole grain form—called “hulled” barley because only the inedible husk has been removed. Hulled barley retains the beneficial bran and germ. Unfortunately, the more widely available “pearled” barley has been steamed and polished to remove the bran. To get the benefits of barley, you will have to seek out the hulled, whole grain form.
Barley and cholesterol levels
According to a new study conducted by St Michael’s Hospital in Canada consuming barley can significantly reduce the levels of “bad cholesterol” that are associated with heart disease risk, signifying that barley has similar cholesterol-lowering effects as oats, if not better.
Barley has a lowering effect on the total bad cholesterol in high-risk individuals, but can also assist people without high cholesterol. High cholesterol and diabetes are the main risk factors for heart disease and stroke. Measuring non-HDL and or apoB — a lipoprotein that carries bad cholesterol through the blood, provides a more exact assessment of cardiovascular disease risk, as they account for the total ‘bad cholesterol’ found in the blood.
How to Cook Barley
Make it a point to buy hulled barley, which is the least processed version. You may only be able to find it in health food and natural food stores. Pearled barley is more commonly found in supermarkets. Store barley away from moisture, heat, and light. In warmer months, keep it in a tightly covered glass jar in the refrigerator.
We recommend soaking barley overnight to decrease cooking time. Soak 1 cup of barley in 2 cups of water overnight in a covered container, in the refrigerator. Drain and rinse the barley before cooking. This will provide multiple servings, which can be stored in the refrigerator and quickly reheated over the next 3 days.
You can cook barley in an open pot on a stovetop, in a slow cooker, or a pressure cooker. It cooks fastest in a pressure cooker, slowest on the stovetop.
Cooking on a stove:
Add 3 cups of water to the soaked barley. Over high heat, bring the barley and water to a boil. Cover, and reduce the heat to low. Allow the grain to simmer for 45 minutes.
Cooking in a pressure cooker:
Follow the above directions, but cook for only 15-20 minutes.
If you like your barley chewier, cook for less time. To make it softer like porridge you will need to cook longer. Once it is a texture you prefer, drain off any remaining liquid.
Barley with Vegetables
- 1 cup hulled barley, rinsed
- 1 cup low-sodium vegetable broth
- 2 cups water
- 1 teaspoon olive oil
- 1 small onion, diced
- One clove garlic, minced
- 1 medium green bell pepper, seeded and diced
- 1 medium carrot, peeled and diced
- ½ cup diced fresh tomato
- ½ cup fresh spinach washed and coarsely chopped
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 small bunch fresh parsley, minced
- Seasonings of choice (basil, onion powder, oregano, thyme), optional
- In a medium saucepan, combine the barley, water, and broth. Bring to a boil, and then reduce heat. Cover tightly and allow simmering for about 45 minutes. Check it at 30 minutes. If all liquids have been absorbed, add up to ¼-cup water. The barley is done when it reaches a chewy texture.
- While the barley is cooking, lightly oil a nonstick pan. Use a paper towel to distribute the oil and soak up any excess. Add onion and garlic, and sauté over medium heat until the onion is translucent. Add the bell pepper, carrot, tomato, and spinach. Continue sautéing until the vegetables are tender, stirring often to keep them from sticking and to allow them to cook evenly.
- Sprinkle salt and pepper over the vegetable mixture. Add the parsley. Add other seasonings, if using. Stir to combine. Cover the pan and remove it from the heat.
- Once the barley has finished cooking, add the sautéed, seasoned vegetables to the cooked barley. Toss with a fork to distribute the vegetables and fluff up the grain. Serve hot.
- Variation: For a more balanced dish, add lentils, garbanzo beans, or white beans for added protein. Adding hummus or part-skim cheese provides more fat.
Barley Breakfast with Mixed Berry Compote
- 1 cup hulled barley
- Kosher salt
- 2 cups mixed berries, such as raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries (fresh or frozen)
- 1½ tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice (from 1/2 small orange)
- 2 teaspoons chia seeds
- 1 teaspoon honey
- 1 cup almond milk
- ¼ cup toasted almonds
- Place the barley, 3 cups water, and a pinch of salt in a medium pot and bring to a boil. Cover the pot, reduce the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the barley is tender and the water is absorbed – 25 to 45 minutes.
- While the barley is cooking, mix the berries, orange juice, chia seeds, and honey in a small saucepan over medium heat. Simmer for about 10 minutes, until the juices begin to thicken.
- Divide the barley evenly amongst four bowls. Top each bowl with ¼ cup warmed almond milk, ¼ cup berry compote, and 1 tablespoon toasted almonds.
Apple-Cinnamon Breakfast Barley
Keep leftover barley stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator up to 2 days. Reheat in the microwave or on the stovetop by stirring in 2 tablespoons of milk then heating.
- 1 cup uncooked hulled barley
- ¼ cup walnuts, roughly chopped
- 2 teaspoons brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
- 1 cup almond milk
- 6 tablespoons sliced fresh apples
- Cook the barley as in the previous recipe.
- Stir in walnuts, brown sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg.
- Add ½-cup almond milk, stirring until mixture is creamy, and most of the liquid is absorbed. You can add some more almond milk to reach desired consistency.
- Divide barley evenly among 3 bowls. Top each bowl with apples.
- Sprinkle with cinnamon.
- Variation: use caramelized apples instead of fresh for a winter season.