best natural foods

Pearl barley vs whole barley

Barley, or more commonly pearl barley - which is the polished barley cereal, sometimes called pearled barley - is a grain that is more widely drunk than eaten.

In case you don't already know, this is the grain used for making beer, whisky and some other alcoholic beverages.

The Chinese, meanwhile, drink barley water, which is widely sold in coffee shops in Asia and and even as a soft drink. Barley water should rightly be brewed from Chinese barley and not pearl barley. It is a different grain, also known as hato mugi or jobs tears. It looks like a rounder version of regular barley and tastes somewhat similar.

There is also roasted barley tea, which tastes like very weak coffee. This is the standard drink served at Korean restaurants but it is drunk also by the Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese, and hence also sometimes made from roasted Chinese barley.

Then there are malted beverages like Horlicks made from malted barley - barley cereal that has been germinated and the germination process halted.

Even when it is eaten as food in Western cuisine, pearl barley is most often cooked as soups, rather than as a dry grain eaten the way rice is eaten.

Fiber throughout barley

There is a reason why barley is not widely eaten - because it is very chewy. This is also the reason why barley is often polished into pearl barley to remove both the husk and the bran.

Barley is very chewy because, among grains, it has the highest content of fiber - about 17 percent. One particular type of barley called Prowashonupana barley (marketed by as Sustagrain) contains about 30 percent fiber!

In contrast, rice, which is the most commonly eaten grain, has the lowest content of fiber. This can be seen from the tables in this article on the fiber content of foods. For your easy reference, I reproduce here the table showing the fiber content of whole grains:

Fiber content of GRAINS (80 grams dry, uncooked)
Food % fiber Fiber (grams)
Amaranth 15.2 12.0
Barley 17 14.0
Brown rice 3.5 3.0
Buckwheat 10 8.0
Corn 7.3 6.0
Millet 8.5 7.0
Oats 10.6 8.5
Quinoa 5.9 4.5
Rye 14.6 11.5
Wheat 12.2 10

The good news about the fiber in barley is this - it is found throughout the grain, unlike other grains which has most of the fiber in the bran or "skin".

So even polished or pearl barley has a relatively high content of fiber. Of course, it would have lost some of the fiber along with most vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, oils and other nutrients. To fully enjoy the health benefits of barley, it is still important to eat whole barley rather than polished pearl barley or "pearled barley".

The other good news about barley fiber is that it is a good mix of both soluble and insoluble fiber. Both types contribute to health and well-being.

Pearl barley vs hulled vs hulless

Barley comes in two main varieties. One variety has a hard, inedible hull firmly attached to the grain and this is the variety most widely cultivated, because it provides higher yields.

With this type of barley, the easiest way to remove the hull is to scrape or "pearl" it off, producing pearl barley or pearled barley. In the process, the bran and much of its nutrients get scrapped off as well.

In some cases, the hull is carefully removed to retain as much of the bran as possible. This is called "hulled" barley.

Another variety of barley, however, does not have a hull firmed attached. This is called "hulless barley". It is whole barley with the bran fully retained, as it does not need to be scraped or pearled.

In any case, whole barley is easily recognisable as it is light brown or beige in color, whereas pearl barley is closer to white.

History of barley

Although barley is not commonly eaten nowadays, this was not always the case. Barley is one of the world's oldest grains and archaelogical records show that it was cultivated as long as 23,000 years ago, in what is now Israel.

Jewish scriptures made frequent references to barley bread. In fact, milling grains into flour and then making them into bread, noodles or pasta is another way humans coped with chewy grains like wheat and barley.

Barley was also highly regarded by the ancient Egyptians and Roman gladiators were known as "barley men". They ate barley because they believed it made them stronger than if they were to eat other grains.

It was only in the last 1,000 years or so, when other less chewy grains became more widely available, that barley consumption declined. Initially, these other grains were more expensive and affordable only by the rich and barley became regarded as "peasant food". This contributed further to the declining popularity of barley.

Ways to eat barley

Today, there is renewed interest in barley with growing health consciousness and especially greater awareness of the health benefits of fiber, Even pearl barley is favourably looked upon as it contains a fair amount of fiber, but the focus has naturally shifted to whole barley instead.

What about its chewy texture?

Well, with the growing interest in barley, products like rolled barley have become more widely available - although still not as commonplace as, say, brown rice. You will have to look for rolled barley in health food stores or upscale supermarkets. Still, you may not find.

Rolled barley is like rolled oats. In fact, both grains are high in soluble fiber, so rolled barley will cook into a nice starch porridge and can be eaten the same way rolled oats are eaten. Note, however, that some rolled barley is rolled pearl barley while others are rolled whole barley.

As for the whole barley, since it contains so much fiber there is no need to eat too much of it. One way is to add it to brown rice, millet or other grains. Instead of cooking 100 percent brown rice, for example, you may mix in 10 or 20 percent whole barley. This will add a nice texture to the dish without making it overly chewy.

They other way is, of course, to use whole barley in soups and stews just as you would use pearl barley. It will be more chewy but cooking longer will help break down some of the fiber.

Meanwhile, get accustomed to chewing your food more. Chewing your food thoroughly is good for health too.

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'Foods of the gods'
Macrobiotic view of grains
Benefits of barley
Barley water
Chinese barley / hato mugi / Job's tears
Pearl barley
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Millet recipes
Benefits of oats
Nutritional value of oats
Steel cut oats
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How to cook brown rice
What is sticky rice?
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