What is Barley?
Barley was one of the first grains cultivated by early humans in Africa and Western Asia, starting 10,000 years ago. The nutty-tasting grain is used in bread, soups and stews and fed to animals, as well as being fermented into beer. Barley is classified as a grass, and domesticated barley has seeds that stay on the barley head instead of dispersing to the wind like the wild variety. Barley is a gluten product, like wheat and rye, so it's not a good choice for anyone with gluten sensitivity.
Immune System Health
The high level of vitamins, minerals and fatty acids in barley boosts your immune system. This can help you fight off colds and fatigue. Copper is one of the minerals found in barley, and red blood cells use it to form hemoglobin. Barley contains ferulic acid which has been identified as a possible tumor inhibitor, and it also contains antioxidants that destroy cancer cells. Because of these characteristics, it's suspected that barley reduces the risk of cancer.
High Blood Pressure and Cholesterol
Doctors recommend barley to patients with hypertension and high cholesterol because it's a low-fat grain that contains no cholesterol, and the calcium, magnesium and potassium found in barley naturally decrease blood pressure. Barley is also high in fiber, and that helps lower the amount of blood cholesterol, especially the LDL, or 'bad', cholesterol. The important thing to remember is that, as with wheat, the more processing the barley undergoes, the fewer health benefits you'll get from eating it.
A recent study in Sweden indicated that barley might have a role in stabilizing blood sugar levels. After three days of having barley bread at breakfast, lunch and dinner, participants in the study showed lowered blood sugar and insulin levels. Researchers also found evidence that the gut released more beneficial bacteria and hormones that protect against inflammation. Other studies have pointed to an increase in a type of gut bacteria that helps regulate blood sugar levels and a decrease in unhealthy gut bacteria from consumption of barley.
A Healthy Weight
Barley can help you maintain a healthy weight because it satisfies the appetite for long periods. Using barley in soups, stews and salads and as a replacement for starchy vegetables could be a means of controlling weight gain. Barley contains a type of fiber called beta-glucans that may reduce the health complications of obesity. These risks include heart disease, strokes and type 2 diabetes.
Types of Barley
There are various forms of barley, and some are best for cooking while others have medicinal properties that are enhanced by different preparations. Here are the common forms of barley you can find at the health food or grocery store.
- Hulled Barley: The whole barley kernel with nothing removed but the indigestible outer layer.
- Pearl Barley: Barley with the bran removed; often ground into flakes that resemble grits.
- Barley Flour: Whole kernel or pearl barley ground into flour.
- Barley Water: Water from barley that has been soaked and boiled, often with lemon and honey added.
- Barley Grass: The seedling form of the plant; high in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and chlorophyll.
- Barley Green Powder: Dried, ground barley grass.
- Barley Sprouts: Sprouted barley kernels.
Part of a Healthy Diet
Like any food that's good for you, barley should be consumed in moderation. If you're not used to eating a lot of fiber, you don't want to load up on barley bread, barley sprouts and barley water. Also, remember that a cup of barley water has the same calories as a serving of barley. Anyone with Celiac disease or gluten intolerance should find alternative sources of the vitamins, minerals and other healthy ingredients found in barley.
Recipe for Barley Water
Start with hulled barley to take full advantage of all the health benefits. Before you begin, rinse one cup of barley until the water runs clear and soak it for at least 8 hours.
- Drain all the water from the barley.
- Put the barley in a large pot with 5 cups of water.
- Cook at a low boil for about an hour, adding more water as needed.
- Strain the barley water through a fine mesh strainer.
- Add honey or sugar while the water is hot enough to dissolve it.
- You can add lemon slices, cinnamon, ginger or other flavorings while boiling the barley.