The low-down on barley and whole grains

We know that there are many healthful reasons for including grains such as barley in the diet. And we're hearing more and more about the importance of including whole grains in the diet. In fact, the United States Department of Agriculture recommends including three servings per day of whole grains in its new 2005 Dietary Guidelines.

So what is a whole grain? Is barley considered whole grain? How can you tell? Here's what you need to know:

barley kernel What is whole grain?
In its natural state, a whole grain is considered the entire seed or kernel of the plant. The seed or kernel is made up of three parts, bran, germ and endosperm.

Bran
This is the outer skin of the kernel. The bran is typically a tough layer that's designed to protect the rest of the seed or kernel. The bran layer usually contains important antioxidants, B vitamins and fiber.

Germ
This layer is actually the embryo of the seed or kernel. The germ layer typically contains B vitamins, some protein, minerals and healthful fats.

Endosperm
This is the germ's food supply and is the largest portion of the kernel. The endosperm contains starchy carbohydrates, proteins and small amounts of vitamins and minerals. It's important to note that in barley, fiber is found throughout the seed or kernel, including the endosperm. In all other grains, fiber is only found in the bran layer.

In order to be considered whole grain, a product must contain all of the essential parts (bran, germ and endosperm) and the naturally occurring nutrients of the entire seed or kernel. If the seed or kernel is processed (such as pearled, cracked, crushed, rolled or extruded), the end product should contain essentially the same balance of nutrients that are found in the original seed or kernel.

Is barley considered whole grain?
Most of the barley that is used for food production is of a type in which the kernels are covered with a very tough inedible hull. This outer hull must be removed before the kernel can be used for human food. A mechanical process is used to remove the tough outer hull from the barley kernel through abrasion. This abrasion process is called "pearling".

During the pearling process, some of the bran layer of the barley kernel may be removed in addition to the tough outer hull. If all of the bran layer is removed, the remaining kernel is not considered whole grain.

Lightly pearled barley = whole grain
However, much of the barley that is used for human food is only lightly pearled. Lightly pearled barley is considered whole grain because some of the bran layer as well as the germ and endosperm is left intact.

How can I tell if the pearl barley found in my supermarket is lightly pearled and considered whole grain?
Pearl barley is the most readily available form of barley currently found in most supermarkets. It is typically located next to rice, beans and pasta. Currently, most packages of pearl barley do not identify the product as "lightly pearled" or "whole grain". However, you can identify lightly pearled barley by its color. Lightly pearled barley appears light brown in color, similar to the color of brown rice. The light brown color indicates the presence of bran. This product is considered whole grain.

What about more heavily pearled barley?
If barley is more heavily pearled resulting in a small, fine or baby pearl, it is likely that all of the bran has been removed, which means that the end product is not considered whole grain. Heavily pearled barley appears creamy white to white in color, similar to white rice. Small, fine or baby pearl barley is often used in commercial food production as an ingredient in products such as canned soups.

Is hulless barley considered whole grain?
Hulless barley refers to another type of barley that is used for human food. Hulless barley differs from other types of barley in that the inedible hull or covering is loosely adhered to the kernel. Usually this loose outer covering falls off of the kernel during harvesting which means that the barley requires minimal pearling, leaving the bran layer as well as the germ and endosperm intact. For this reason, hulless barley is always considered whole grain. Hulless barley is currently in limited supply; however, it is likely that more food products will be made from this type of barley in the future.

Do barley products that are not considered whole grain still offer important nutrients that are essential to good health?
Yes, even more heavily pearled barley products still offer important nutrients (including vitamins, minerals and fiber) that are essential to a healthful diet. Barley is particularly recognized for its fiber content and the many contributions that it offers for good health. It's important to note that when it comes to fiber content, barley differs from all other grains. In all other grains, fiber is found only in the bran layer of the seed or kernel. So if the grain is processed and the bran layer is removed, all of the fiber is lost as well. This is not the case with barley. Fiber is found throughout the entire barley seed or kernel. So, even if barley is heavily processed or pearled in which the entire bran layer is removed, the remaining product still contains fiber. In fact, very heavily pearled barley still retains at least 8% fiber content. Research has shown that fiber is essential to good health and is particularly beneficial in reducing risk factors for coronary heart disease as well as for certain types of cancer.

How can I get more information about the healthful benefits of barley?
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