Barley: Grain of Thrones

Barley, the understated wholegrain

Barley, the understated wholegrain


A fantastic wholegrain, barley is unfortunately often overlooked in favour of more trendy, fashionable and expensive alternatives such as quinoa and freekeh. Yet its lineage is impeccable. One of the first cultivated grains, over 10,000 years ago, this “Grain of Thrones” has been attributed as the source of the success of Eurasian civilisations.  Capable of sustaining large armies, even Pliny noted barley was a special food of gladiators, known as hordearii, “barley-eaters”. Meanwhile barley beer was one of the first alcoholic beverages, while the grain continues to this day to leave its mark in the production of some of the finest beers and whiskies around the world. In Asia, barley tea, with its slightly smoky scent and rich taste, is known as a digestive aid and overall caffeine free internal cleanser.

But our focus today is on wholegrain barley, a versatile and readily available grain with a robust and nutty flavour. It is an amazing ingredient for soups, stews and curries. Perhaps most important, it is a fantastic substitute for white rice, replacing its nutritional drawbacks with fantastic health benefits. Note also wholegrain rather than pearl: the goodness of the ‘bran’ and ‘germ’ is removed from the more refined variety.


The good health stuff

Barley is a great source of dietary fibre, selenium and manganese, while also being rich in vitamin B1, phosphorous, magnesium and copper.

Barley is wonderful for intestine health, having been long associated with an ability to sooth and calm the bowels, while also providing food for “friendly” bacteria in the large intestine. Avicenna, in his 11th century work The Canon of Medicine, wrote of the healing effects of barley water, soup and broth for fevers. Today we know the grain’s dietary fibre is high in beta-glucan, which aids with lowering cholesterol. Barley also contains vitamin B3, which can provide protection for cardiovascular health.

Consuming whole grains such as barley 6 times or more a week can protect postmenopausal women against cardiovascular disease and reduce the risk of breast cancer. Meanwhile regular consumption of whole grains can also reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, while according the Agricultural Research Service at the Diet and Human Performance Laboratory, barley appears more effective in reducing both glucose and insulin response than even oats.

Selenium found in barley can aid with the detoxification of cancer-casing compounds, while also decreasing tumour growth cells and improving the immune system.


Bring back barley to your breakfast, lunch or dinner

In medieval Europe, bread made from barley and rye was peasant food, while wheat products were consumed by the upper classes. Later potatoes largely replaced barley in many areas of Europe. To this day the relative cost of food, its scarcity and how fashionable it is considered to be seems to be more important than its nutritional value, perhaps explaining why barley is still relatively neglected in the fad diet world. Yet nutrition is what it’s all about and this is why wholegrain barley deserves to make a comeback in your routine nutrition, so don’t be afraid to experiment substituting it in white rice or quinoa dishes for a little variety.

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Iris is the founder of No Targets Just Routine. She has researched food since 2009 and believes “Happiness is real food shared with loved ones.”

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