Barley may be best known for its use in making beer and whiskey, but when it comes to making soup, barley is often a popular  ingredient as well.  The gluten content of this grain gives it a pasta-like consistency and makes it a good, heat-generating food.

This grain grows well in the colder climates, which helps to explain why Russia cultivates the most barley.  Sprouted barley is high in sugar maltose.  When the maltose is in the form of an extract, the remaining malt syrup can then be used to make beer or to sweeten other food products.  Barley water has been used for thousands of years as a medicinal in aiding in good health.

Barley can help in lowering cholesterol, reducing the formation of blood clots, reducing the risk of cancer and improving digestion.


This grain is similar to the wheat berry, but much lighter in color.  Barley is the fourth largest produced cereal product globally, right behind wheat, rice and corn.  Although barley is used in several food items for human consumption, more than 80 percent of the world’s barley is cultivated for the manufacture of alcohol and livestock feed.

In today’s modern market the forms of barley available include pearl barley (an intensely-milled whole barley grain), hulled barley, pot or Scotch barley (very similar to pearl barley but with a layer of bran left on), barley grits and barley flakes.


Barley is known to have originated in Ethiopia in around 8000 B.C.E. and is one of the most ancient cultivated grains in the world.  Some scientists believe post-Ice Age climate changes and barley’s development of a hardened rachis (which prevented scattering of the grain) allowed for better cultivation.  Barley was one of the first cereals in the Middle East to be cultivated and was used by many ancient civilizations as food for animals and humans, as well as for making alcoholic beverages.  The first known recipe for wine made from barley dates back to 2800 B.C.E in ancient Babylonia. 

This grain was used by the ancient Greeks to make bread.  Athletes from Rome and Greece attributed their strength and physical growth to their consumption of barley.  In fact, gladiators were known as “hordearii,” or “eaters of barley.”  This grain was also honored in ancient China as a symbol of male virility.

Because wheat was very expensive in the Middle Ages, many Europeans made bread from a combination of rye and barley.  The Spanish conquistadors introduced barley to South America in the 1500s.  In the 1600s, English and Dutch settlers brought barley to the United States.

The largest commercial producers of barley are the Russian Federation, the United States, Canada, Spain, Germany and France.

Nutritional Information

Barley is known to provide the same nutritional compounds as corn and it is a very good source of selenium and fiber.  This grain also provides magnesium, copper and phosphorous, and contains more than four times as much magnesium as calcium.  Barley, unlike corn, is a good source of niacin, or vitamin B3.

One cup of cooked pearl barley contains 36 micrograms of selenium, more than half of the recommended daily value, and 5 IUs of vitamin E.

Health Benefits

One of the greatest health benefits of barley is its fiber components.  Much like oat bran, barley’s dietary fiber has a high beta-glucan content, which aids in lowering cholesterol by binding to bile acids and removing them from the body through the feces.

Barley contains lignans, compounds that have antioxidant qualities to help stop free radical oxidation.  Not only does this aid in lowering cholesterol (as noted above), but it also reduces the risk for heart disease.


This grain contains moderate to large amounts of oxalate.  Those people who have a history of calcium oxalate-containing kidney stones should avoid or limit their consumption of this food.

Selecting and Storing

Many forms of barley are available in bulk, including pearl, hulled, pot/Scotch, grit and flakes.  When purchasing in bulk, it is important to check for moisture in the food and that the barley is stored in securely-covered bins.  Ensuring the market has a good turnover of product is also a good idea.

Store purchased barley in a covered glass container in a cool, dry place.  Barley will last a little longer if stored in the refrigerator.

Serving Ideas for Barley

Barley should be rinsed thoroughly under cool, running water before cooking to remove any debris or dirt.

A few serving ideas for barley include:

  • Adding this grain to bean dishes, casseroles and vegetable soups.

  • Mixing barley flour with wheat flour to make breads and muffins (barley will give them an earthy, sweet taste).

  • Cracked or flaked barley can be used to make the hot cereals typically made with oatmeal.

  • Using cooked barley and mushrooms sautéed in garlic for an Eastern European touch.

  • Making barley water by boiling ¼ cup of barley grains in 2 pints of water for 5 minutes.  Strain and squeeze the juice of one lemon and 2 teaspoons of honey into the mixture.  This drink is healthy and easily digested.


  1. Holford, P.(2004). The optimum nutrition bible. London : Piatkus
  2. Holford, P & Lawson, S. (2008). Optimum Nutrition Made Easy How to achieve optimum health. London : Piatkus
  3. Murray, M.T. et al.(2005). Encyclopedia of healing foods. London : Piatkus
  4. Yeager, S. & Prevention Health Books. (1998). The doctors book of food remedies : the newest discoveries in the power of food to cure and prevent health problems from aging and diabetes to ulcers and yeast infections. [Emmaus, Pa.] : Rodale

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