Barley Nutrition Facts and Health Benefits

Bowl of barley

Verywell / Bailey Mariner

Barley is one of the world's oldest grains, dating back more than 1,000 years to Southwest Asia where it was first farmed. Cultivated barley (Hordeum vulgare) is what you are likely to find on store shelves in modern times, but this grain was derived from a wild species (Hordeum spontaneum).

Today, barley is known to be a hardy, tolerant, grass crop that is grown around the world, particularly in Russia, France, Germany, and Australia. In the United States, barley production ranks fourth among cereal grains, behind corn, wheat, and rice

Most of the barley grown in the U.S. is used for animal feed. About a quarter of the barley produced is used for malt (often used in the production of alcoholic beverages), and of course, some goes on store shelves to be sold to consumers.

Barley is a versatile grain that can be used in salads, soups, or just served as a side dish. The grain can also be ground into flour and some even drink barley tea. Barley provides fiber, protein, and micronutrients including selenium and niacin. The grain is inexpensive and stores well, making it a budget-friendly and nutritious addition to your diet.

Barley Nutrition Facts

The following nutrition information is provided by the USDA for a one-cup serving (about 157g) of cooked, pearled barley.

  • Calories: 193
  • Fat: 0.7g
  • Sodium: 4.7mg
  • Carbs: 44.3g
  • Fiber: 6g
  • Sugars: 0.4g
  • Protein: 3.6g

Carbs

A one-cup serving of cooked, pearled, barley provides 193 calories, most of which are carbohydrates. You'll consume 44.3 grams of carbohydrates in a single serving, 6 grams of fiber, and 0.4 grams of naturally-occurring sugar. The rest of the carbohydrates in barley are starch.

Pearled barley is most commonly found in supermarkets. But hulled barley is also available in some markets. One cup of hulled barley (184g) provides 651 calories, 135 grams of carbohydrate, 31.8 grams of fiber, and 1.48 grams of naturally-occurring sugar, according to USDA data. A single cup of raw, hulled barley yields about 3 1/2 of cooked barley. One cup of pearled barley yields 4 cups cooked.

Barley flour provides about 511 calories per cup (148g) serving. There are 110 grams of carbohydrates, 14.9 grams of fiber, 15.5 grams of protein, and 1.18 grams of sugar in that serving size.

The University of Sydney reports a glycemic index of 35 for pearled barley that has been boiled for 60 minutes. They also include barley with a glycemic index of 27 (making it a low glycemic food), but do not specify how or if it is cooked and whether or not it is pearled.

Fats

There is less than one gram of fat (0.7 grams) in a single one-cup serving of boiled, pearled barley as long as no oil or butter is used in the cooking process. Most of the fat is polyunsaturated (0.33g) with some coming from monounsaturated fat (0.09g) and some from saturated fat (0.15g).

Protein

Barley contains about 3.6 grams of protein per one-cup cooked serving. It provides less protein than some other whole grains. As a basis for comparison, brown rice provides about 4.5 grams of protein, quinoa provides about 8 grams per one-cup cooked serving, and Kamut provides 9.8 grams per one-cup serving.

Vitamins and Minerals

Barley is an excellent source of selenium, providing 13.5 micrograms or about 24.5% of the daily value (DV) set by the FDA that is used for food labels. It also it provides 3.24 micrograms of niacin or about 20% of the daily value.

Barley is a good source of manganese, providing 0.4 milligrams about 17% of the daily value and it provides 2.1 milligrams of iron, about 11.6% of the daily value. You'll also get smaller amounts of thiamin, vitamin B6, riboflavin, folate, phosphorus, zinc, and copper.

Health Benefits

Barley may provide certain health benefits, but the type of barley you choose can make a difference in these benefits. Many studies conducted about the health effects of barley involve the whole grain (hulled) variety.

Lower Cholesterol Levels

In a report published by New Zealand’s Heart Foundation, researchers reviewed studies related to whole grain consumption. After examining 19 meta-analyses they found that whole grains can help to lower total and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol by 1%-2% when compared to refined grains.

This effect was seen when whole grains were consumed within the context of an energy-restricted diet or healthy dietary pattern. They also noted that the soluble fiber in oats and barley has a greater beneficial effect on total and LDL cholesterol (3-8% reduction), especially in people with raised lipid levels.

Improves Fiber Intake

Barley is rich in dietary fiber, providing 6g per one-cup serving (as long as you choose the whole grain type). Barley's fiber content is higher than many other whole grains. For example, brown rice provides 3.5 grams per cup and quinoa provides 5 grams per cup.

Organizations including the American Heart Association and the National Institutes of Health recommend that we make better efforts to consume the recommended dietary intake of fiber. In addition, the 2020-2025 USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans has mentioned that fiber has been a nutrient of public health concern since 2005.

Currently, about 5% of Americans meet adequate fiber intake. The current daily value for fiber provided by the FDA is 28 grams per day. Fiber can provide health benefits including improved blood glucose, improved blood cholesterol, and even a reduced risk of certain cancers.

May Promote Disease Prevention

Some cereal grains are known to contain phenolic compounds due to their high antioxidant content. Antioxidants help prevent oxidative stress that occurs in cells when your body is exposed to free radicals. Free radicals occur naturally in the body, but we are also exposed to free radicals in the environment from things like air pollution or cigarette smoke.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), oxidative stress is thought to play a role in a variety of diseases including cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and eye diseases such as cataracts and age-related macular degeneration.

The phenolic acid profile and antioxidant capacity of barley (along with wheat, corn, rice, sorghum, rye, oat, and millet) have been shown to provide health-promoting phenolics, flavonoids, and anthocyanins. Researchers concluded that the presence of these natural antioxidants can play a role in the prevention of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer.

May Increase Stool Frequency

The fiber provided by barley can provide certain gastrointestinal benefits. A research review published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology in 2012 found that increasing dietary fiber intake can increase stool frequency in those who have constipation. That review, however, concluded that increased fiber intake did not improve stool consistency, constipation treatment success, laxative use, or painful defecation.

But another study conducted in 2018 found that adding fiber to the diet in older adults may be effective in increasing stool frequency and/or decreasing laxative use and reducing the burden of constipation.

May Help Support Thyroid Function

Barley is an excellent source of selenium, a nutrient that is important for reproduction and DNA production. Selenium is particularly important for thyroid hormone synthesis and metabolism. There has been some evidence suggesting that low selenium levels in women may be associated with certain thyroid problems, especially in those who also have low iodine levels.

Studies involving selenium supplements have provided inconsistent results. Researchers acknowledge that more studies need to be done to understand the relationship between selenium intake and healthy thyroid function. Selenium also provides antioxidant benefits.

May Reduce Inflammation

Some preliminary research conducted at the University of Nebraska suggests that the short-term increased intake of whole grains, particularly whole grain barley, brown rice, or a mixture of the two, might promote healthy changes in the gut microbiota that coincide with improvements in systemic inflammation. The researchers note that systemic inflammation may be at the root of many chronic diseases.

Allergies

Barley, like wheat, contains cross-reactive proteins that can trigger allergic reactions (separate from gluten sensitivity). Those with a known allergy to wheat may also have a reaction to barley and vice versa. However, this is not the case for everyone with a wheat allergy and some sources even advice using barley as a wheat substitute if you have a wheat allergy.

Allergic symptoms may include hives or skin rash, nausea, stomach cramps, indigestion, vomiting, diarrhea, runny nose, sneezing, headaches, asthma. In rare cases, anaphylaxis can occur which can make it difficult to breathe. If you are unsure if you might have a wheat or barley allergy, visit your healthcare provider to get personalized advice.

Adverse Effects

Those with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity cannot consume barely. When people with celiac disease ingest gluten it can trigger an autoimmune response that affects the villi in their small intestine.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. If you consume gluten containing grains and have either condition, you may experience symptoms including (but not limited to) unexplained iron-deficiency anemia, fatigue, bone or joint pain, arthritis, or canker sores inside the mouth.

If you avoid gluten you should also stay away from products made from barley, including malt. While it might be easy to spot "barley" on a food label, malt can be harder to find. It might be listed in the ingredients as maltose, malt sugar, malt syrup, or dextrimaltose. Once you start looking for these words on food labels, you may find that barley is an ingredient used to make a wide range of products.

The high selenium content of barley could potentially be problematic for some. There is some (limited) evidence that selenium may interact with cisplatin, a chemotherapy agent that is used to treat ovarian, bladder, lung, and other cancers. If you are taking cisplatin, speak to your healthcare provider to get personalized advice.

Varieties

Barley is available in several different forms. One of the most common types of barley is pearl or pearled barley. Pearl barley is tan or white in color and has been polished to remove the outer bran layer. Because part of the grain has been removed, pearled barley is not considered a whole grain. Some consumers prefer pearl barley because it cooks faster than whole-grain barley.

There is also a type of barley called quick-cook pearl barley that cooks in just 10 minutes. This grain has been partially cooked so preparation is easier.

If you prefer a whole grain, look for hulled barley. The grain (sometimes called dehulled barley) has had the tough, inedible, outer hull removed. This removal process keeps the bran in tact so the barley is still considered a whole grain. Also available (but far less common) is hulless barley. This grain has a loose hull that falls off during harvesting. It is also considered a whole grain because the bran and germ are in tact.

Lastly, barley can be processed into grits or flakes. These products are considered whole grain only if they are made from whole grain barley. Barley flour is also available and can be used as a thickener or (combined with wheat flour) in some baking recipes. Some people also use barley grass in juice drinks and some consume barley tea, made from roasted barley.

When It's Best

Barley is found year-round in grocery stores around the country. You are likely to find it in the rice or pasta aisles. You might also find barley in the bulk section of the market.

Storage and Food Safety

Barley should be stored like you store all of your grains. Keep it in an airtight container away from heat and light for up to six months. You can also freeze it for up to a year. Once it is cooked, keep barley in the refrigerator in an airtight container for up to three days.

How to Prepare

The way that you prepare barley depends on the type that you buy. To cook pearl barley, bring two quarts of water to a boil in a large pot on high heat. Add a dash of salt and one cup of pearl barley. Once the water returns to a boil, reduce the heat and cook for 25 to 30 minutes until the barley has reached your desired texture. Drain and serve. Pearl barley can also be prepared in a slow cooker.

Hulled barley takes longer to cook. To prepare the grain, place one cup of the barley in a pot with about six cups of water and a dash of salt. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for about 40 minutes or more. When the grain becomes tender (or at your desired consistency) remove the pot from the heat and let sit for about 10 minutes. During this time the grains should absorb any remaining water. If some remains, simply drain it before serving.

Use barley instead of rice as a side dish or in salads, stews, or soup recipes. Some people consume barley instead of oatmeal in the morning. Its nutty taste is also delicious when used in savory stuffing, pilaf, or risotto recipes.

Recipes

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