Barley – The cereal for longer lifespan and healthier hair

Of all the major cereals in the world, barley is one which does not often grace Western tables, or indeed modern Asian ones. This cereal grain, used to be a staple for many in ancient times, then it was slowly supplanted by (faster cooking) white rice. However, it is not only is it healthier than rice, it is also the grain with the lowest GI level.

Barley, a grain harvested and consumed as far back as 10,000 years ago, used to be a staple of Japanese cuisine but was gradually replaced by white rice. It is now making a slow comeback, although it is finding stiff competition from the likes of quinoa. Research has shown that consumption of barley is far healthier than consuming white rice, especially after middle age. It is also the grain with the lowest GI.

What is barley exactly?

Barley (Hordeum Vulgare) is a plant from the grass family, in the same way as rice, maize, rye, millet and sorghum are, from which the grains are harvested and eaten. It is one of the oldest crops known to humans, and has been widely cultivated for over 10,000 years! It is also the 4th most produced grain (after maize, rice and wheat) in the world.

Although usually the type found most readily is pearl barley, hulled or whole barley is more nutritious. Given the lengthy cooking times of whole barley (between 1 to 1.5 hours), unless otherwise specified, most recipes will use pearl barley, which cooks in about 35-40 minutes much the same as brown rice. But, aside from cooking times, what is the difference between the two?

Whole barley vs pearl barley

Whole grain kernels are made up of different parts. When grains are refined (and the bran is removed) they are also stripped of a lot of their nutrients.  This is why, from a health perspective, it is always better to consume whole foods and whole grains, whenever possible.

All grain kernels have three parts:

The Bran – the name given to the fibre-filled outer layer. This part is nutrient-packed and contains B vitamins and minerals.

The Endosperm – the starchy carbohydrate middle layer which contains some proteins and vitamins.

The Germ- or the nutrient-packed core. It also contains many vitamins, phytochemicals and  healthy fats.

Whole barley, also referred to as Hulled barley, is that where only the inedible outermost layer (the hull) has been removed leaving the bran, endosperm and germ intact. Although it is the healthiest option in so far as it contains slightly more fibre, protein, calcium and iron, it is usually shunned for the quicker-cooking pearl barley.

Pearl barley is the barley grain where the bran has been removed. Although it is not as nutrient-rich as whole barley, it is worth noting that it has higher levels of BetaGlucan (more of which below), a substance which is found in the endosperm and not so much in the hull.

Nutritional properties of barley – whole vs pearl

The nutritional properties of whole and pearl barley are similar, as you can see from the table below.

 Per 100g

Whole barley

Pearl Barley





1,600 – 3,000





















































B vitamins including niacin (B3), thiamine (B1) and pyridoxine (B6)


Whole and refined barley also contain B vitamins including niacin (B3), thiamine (B1) and pyridoxine (B6).

What’s more, as mentioned above, the GI of Barley is the lowest of all the grains at 28. As a reference, Instant Porridge oats have a GI of 79, rolled oats 55 and Cornflakes between 75- 87. This is important for anyone wishing to manage their blood sugar levels, and consequently their weight, whether or not diabetic. That is not all, barley has a host of other proven health benefits.

The health benefits of barley

Barley, whether whole or pearl, has many health benefits both from a Western medicine and  Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) standpoints.

From the Western perspective barley:

·       Reduces LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol)

·       Slows down the signs of ageing ( in muscles, in fibres, it promotes brain health and spatial memory ie remembering where an object is located)

·       Promotes overall health by, among other things, improving intestinal flora- as little as 60grams of barley a day can increase healthy bacteria in your gut

·       Helps in weightloss - it not only reduces visceral fat, it also staves off hunger by reducing the levels of ghrelin, the hormone responsible for feelings of hunger

·       Helps to manage blood glucose levels and insulin – the high Betaglucan levels (also found in oats) help reduce glucose levels after eating, which is especially important for diabetics. In some studies this reduction in blood sugar noted was between 59-65% compared to the 29-36% reduction found after consuming oats (which also have a high content of Betaglucan).

·       Decreases the risk of diabetes – cereal consumption and the magnesium in the fibre, is better at reducing glucose levels than the fibres found in vegetable and fruits!

·       Anti-cancer – the dietary fibre in the grain reduces oxidative stress (ie those nasty free radicals) which usually results from hight fat diets. In turn this reduces inflammation which is a known cause of most serious diseases.

·       Whole barley is a mild laxative, although it has been noted that roasted barley may worsen constipation.

·        It contains GABA so it can help regulate mood. (read more about mood regulation through diet here).


From the TCM perspective barley:

·       Strengthens the spleen/pancreas

·       Regulates the stomach

·       Fortifies the intestines

·       Benefits the gallbladder and nerves

·       Builds blood and yin fluids

·       Moistens dryness

·       Promotes diuresis and alleviates painful urination

·       Treats diarrhoea

·       Soothes inflamed membranes


If the above isn’t enough to convince you to start eating more barley, and replacing the rice in with barley, the results of a 2019 study carried out in Japan might.

Why you should be replacing white rice with barley

The findings of the Japanese study which compared a diet with barley as opposed to rice and/or rice and barley, were very interesting. Although the study was carried out in rats, unlike previous studies, this time the differences between barley and rice intake were examined for the entire lifespan of the test subjects. One group consumed only white rice, another was fed a combination of rice and barley with a 1:4 ratio.

The study concluded that the consumption of barley, especially in the latter part of life (the human equivalent of middle age) led to a longer lifespan. Asides from this, the biggest notable difference was that the in the barley group better overall health was observed including a significantly marked delay in the signs of ageing compared to the rice group. This included brain health, muscle health and ease of movement, as well as spatial memory. Both whole and pearl barley reduced LDL cholesterol, and there was a reduction of visceral fat. The body weight of those in the barley group also dropped in later age, they ate less compared to the rice group and significantly, researchers reported glossier hair and less hair loss leading to baldness in the barley group. Their conclusion is that older generations should be replacing rice with barley for better overall health and longer lifespan.

(If you are interested in comparing other nutritional properties of rice with barley you can read more about rice in an earlier blog post here)

Why Chinese women use barley for better skin and hair

A friend of mine who used to live in Hong Kong, used to tell me how Chinese women (and some men) were almost obsessed with barley which they consumed to have healthier, younger looking skin and hair.

Interestingly, some researchers think that baldness might be a clinical marker for insulin resistance. What’s more, it is believed that it is the amino acid Lysine, which the body needs to make collagen (which gives the skin structure and elasticity), alongside the selenium, an antioxidant which helps to combat free radicals, both contribute to give barley the reputation for being an anti-ageing elixir. Couple this with the B vitamins and iron and you will understand why it is has been consumed by Chinese women for centuries for healthier skin and hair.

Side effects

Unfortunately, if you are looking for a gluten-free alternative to rice, barley is not for you. It may also increase symptoms of IBS sufferers such as gas and bloating due to the amount of fructans it contains. (It is not clear whether cooking barley with asafoetida may help.)

How to prepare barley

Usually, barley is used as a cereal to replace rice, as a side, for risottos, in soups, for breakfast instead of porridge, or as a salad. However, it can also be used powdered and used a hot drink called “barley coffee” which has the advantage of providing energy without the caffeine, and is a popular coffee substitute in places such as Italy. The whole berries can also be prepared as a decoction and served as a tea. Both as “coffee” and tea, barley can help relieve summer heat (see more on cooling foods in previous blog posts here), to counteract fatigue as well as a digestive aid.

In China sprouted barley is used as a herb to treat indigestion and alleviate the symptoms of stagnant liver.

Looking for some inspiration? Here’s one of my favourite barley recipes.

Barley risotto with pumpkin (quick recipe)

This is my quick barley risotto recipe. You could add half a stock cube for extra flavour, or gently sautee the pumpkin before adding the barley and water to the pan, but I personally


60-80g pearl barley per person

150g pumpkin* ( approx. half a baby pumpkin)

Parmesan to grate


Olive oil

Half a stock cube (preferably chicken or beef)


*can be replaced with butternut squash but cooking times may vary


1.       Wash the whole baby pumpkin in a bicarbonate and water bath.

2.       Dry, trim and peel (saving the skin to make pumpkin chips), then chop into approximately 1cm wide cubes.

3.      Measure the barley and place in a pan with the pumpkin cubes, stock cube (previously dissolved in some hot water), a pinch of salt and a ratio of 1.5/2 parts of water to 1 part of water to pear barley. Start with 1.5 parts of water and add later as needed. Nobody likes soggy risotto!

4.      Bring to the boil, then turn down to medium heat and allow the barley (and pumpkin) to cook. This will take approximately 25 to 35 minutes.

5.      After 25 minutes check if the barley has cooked through and add more water/stock if needed.

6.      Once the barley is cooked through and has soaked up the water, and the pumpkin has softened. Remove from the heat and sprinkle liberally with grated parmesan and mix. Cooked barley is naturally creamy so there is no need to add butter like a normal risotto, but you can do so if you wish.

Serve hot and enjoy all the health benefits of barley and pumpkin combined (read here about the health benefits of pumpkin).


Other barley recipes

-Squid with Barley

- For two more recipes using barley head to Anna’s Kitchen book where you will find Barley & Shrimps, as well as a Barley Salad recipe.





Further reading:

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