Grains, also known as "cereal" in some parts of the world, are the edible (after processing) seeds at the end of certain grass plants that are cultivated for food. Wheat and barley are two of the most important grains, and both are found widely and in a variety of formats that have unique nutritional profiles and health benefits.
When it comes to barley vs wheat, barley tends to be nutritionally superior, with more fiber and vitamins than most forms of wheat. Barley has also been associated with greater heart health (by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol) and improved blood sugar management.
Wheat can also be a healthy grain, but only when it is a whole grain (wheat berries and whole wheat flour). Whole grain wheat is a relatively rich source of fiber, protein, and vitamins and minerals including phosphorus, zinc, and magnesium.
Not a grain lover? Less enthralled with breads and cereals in general? Then you’d do well to up your consumption of other high-fiber, nutrient-dense, plant-based whole foods — such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and legumes — many of which provide similar nutritional benefits as whole grains.
Consider, as well, supplementing your diet with Eden’s, a synbiotic blend of five prebiotic fibers (including barley beta glucan), five polyphenols, and four probiotics that specifically target total metabolic and immune health. (At Eden's, we selected barely beta gluten over some wheat alternatives because it contains only trace amounts of gluten, <40ppm, and is better tolerated by people looking to avoid typical gluten-related symptoms.)
3-in-1 Synbiotic Superblend
Wheat: History and forms
Of all the different types of grains, wheat is currently the primary grain that is grown and harvested in the United States. Up to 42 states produce wheat every year, with Kansas and North Dakota, respectively, being the top two largest producers. You can find wheat in the form of wheat berries, whole wheat flour, white all-purpose flour (also known as refined wheat flour), as well as other refined baking flours.
Wheat, unlike barley, is typically processed, which includes milling and rolling over whole grain wheat berries to turn the grain into a flour. During the milling process, the grain is cracked open to separate the middle layer — the endosperm — from the inner and outer layers (germ and bran), removing much of the nutrients of a grain. The remaining endosperm is then ground into a fine white flour — also known as refined wheat flour (or processed wheat flour). Because the milling process removes a significant amount of nutrients from the product, white flour is often enriched to add back vitamins and minerals, so as to restore some nutritional value.
White flour tends to have a longer shelf life (from six to eight months, to up to two years) than flour made from the whole wheat kernel (known as graham flour) because white flour is made without the germ, which contains oil that may spoil flour faster. Whole wheat flour may keep up to three months to a year, depending on how well the flour is stored.
Wheat berries that have not undergone any processing represent another form of whole grain wheat. This form contains all three layers of the whole grain, making wheat berries one of the healthier forms of wheat.
Barley: History and forms
Barley is mostly grown in the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Plains. This includes states such as Oregon, Washington, Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, North Dakota, Montana, and Minnesota. An older grain, barley has a history tracing back as far as 10,000 years. Barley was even used as a form of (cheap) currency in ancient Mesopotamia. However, most barley production now goes toward producing animal feed and alcoholic beverages such as beer.
Barley can be found hulled, pearled, or chopped or ground into finer pieces, such as in the case of barley grits.
Barley is harvested with a tough outer hull that covers the whole grain. To get to the edible layers of barley, the outer hull is carefully removed so as to keep the bran layer (the outermost layer of a grain) intact. However, this process may not remove absolutely all traces of hull, which keeps the bran layer minimally covered. This form of barley is known as hulled barley, or occasionally, "de-hulled" barley. Hull-less barley refers to barley that has the outer hull so loosely attached that it tends to fall off during the harvesting phase, making it a hull-less barley. Both hulled and hull-less barley are forms of whole-grain barley because the three layers of a whole grain (bran, endosperm, and germ) are still in-tact in both forms.
Another common form of barley is pearled barley, which is barley that has been polished to remove the outer hull layer. However, in this polishing process, the bran tends to be removed, as well. Pearled barley is not considered a whole-grain, but the remaining parts of the kernel may still provide some nutritional and health benefits, including barley beta glucans, which are found in the endosperm.
Barley grits and barley flakes are further processed forms of barley. They are cut into smaller pieces or rolled over to become flakes. Barley grits and barley flakes may still be considered whole grain forms of barley, but only if they are made from hulled or hull-less barley. Pearled-barley derived grits and flakes are not considered whole grain.
Wheat vs. barley: Nutritional differences
To get a better idea of the nutritional differences, in the chart below we compare the macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals of different forms of wheat (wheat berries, whole wheat flour, and white all-purpose flour) and common forms of barley (hulled barley and pearled barley).
* Data is for 100 grams for each grain
** All-Purpose (AP) Flour is essentially refined (or processed) wheat flour that contains an average of 8-12% gluten content, making it a good all-purpose or general flour, but it is not necessarily great for making bread (you would want a higher gluten-content flour)
*** To help identify a healthy whole grain, Harvard Health came up with the 10-1 ratio: for every 10 grams of carbohydrates in a grain, there should be at least one gram of fiber. This ratio is calculated by dividing the total amount of carbs by the total amount of fiber (ex: 66.7g of carbs/8.3g of fiber = 8.03). If the carb-to-fiber ratio is under 10, the grain can be considered a healthy whole grain. The smaller the ratio, the better.
The carb-to-fiber ratio for most of the grains in this table ranges from 6-8, which means they are generally considered healthy whole grains. Refined wheat flour (processed wheat) contains more carbs and minimal fiber, shooting the carb-to-fiber ratio up to 28, which makes it the least healthy option among them all.
In terms of the highest fiber content, hulled barley and pearled barley contain the most fiber per 100 grams of grain.
Regarding protein, whole-grain wheat (wheat berries and whole wheat flour) contains the most protein, beating both barley options.
As for caloric content, hulled barley and wheat berries contain the least amount of calories, which makes sense as they are of the least processed forms of each grain (barley and wheat).
* Data is per 100 grams for each grain
** Boxes containing “-” have 0 or no significant amount of that vitamin or nutrient
*** Values highlighted to show the differences between whole wheat flour and refined wheat flour (AP flour)
Overall, pearled barley contains a lower level of vitamins than hulled barley, which may be due to the fact that pearled barley is more processed (outer husk and bran layers removed) than hulled barley.
Aside from vitamin A, hulled barley also contains more vitamins than all forms of wheat in this table (wheat berries, whole wheat flour, and both types of refined AP flour).
From the data, enriched refined AP flour contains more vitamins than hulled barley does naturally, but this is because the enrichment process adds back a significant amount of:
- Thiamin (B1)
- Riboflavin (B2)
- Niacin (B3)
- Folic Acid
* Data is per 100 grams for each grain
** Values highlighted for emphasis
Of all types and forms of grains in this table, enriched AP flour contains the least amount of minerals, in general. However, enriched AP flour does seem to add back iron and selenium, particularly, restoring and even surpassing the iron and selenium contents in whole-grain forms of wheat (wheat berries and whole wheat flour, unenriched).
According to the data, whole wheat is also richer in phosphorus, zinc, and manganese compared to both forms of barley. With regard to potassium content, barley outshine wheats.
Barley vs wheat: Health benefits
Many wheat products — bread, tortillas, and hamburger buns, to name a few — are made with refined wheat flour. On the bottom of the nutritional label, you may see this ingredient listed as "enriched bleached flour" or "enriched wheat flour" — but both terms mean refined wheat flour, or wheat flour that's been processed — which is nutritionally inferior to whole grain wheat, even if the flour has been "enriched." Yes, the enrichment process may add back certain vitamins and minerals, such as folate and riboflavin (B2), but that does not mean that they’ve restored the healthy fats and fibers that were lost in the milling and refining process. Bottom line: refined wheat products represent a notorious source of refined (or simple) carbs, which spike blood sugar levels and contribute to chronic inflammation that can lead to the development of a host of chronic cardiometabolic disorders. (Learn more: The Truth about processed foods.)
In essence, whole grain wheat is far more nutritionally beneficial than its refined or processed versions. The same principle applies for whole grain barley and pearled barley. So, to be fair in the comparison between wheat and barley, we'll herein refer to the health benefits of the whole grain versions of both.
Great protein source: Wheat is a great source of protein, which can play an important role in blood sugar and diabetes management. One serving of wheat berries (48 g) contains about 9 grams of protein, or 18% of the daily recommended value (DV) for protein.
Rich source of dietary fiber: Dietary fibers, comprised of soluble and insoluble dietary fibers, play an important role in gut and metabolic health. When fed well by fiber, the gut produces an increased amount of “good” bacteria, while “bad” bacteria often decreases, resulting in a healthier digestive and metabolic system. Insoluble dietary fiber (IDF) is associated with bowel health and bowel movement. Soluble dietary fiber (SDF) helps line the stomach and intestines by "increas[ing] the viscosity of stomach and intestinal contents," which may help reduce intestinal enzymatic activity. Both types of fiber are necessary for improved digestion, heart health, and metabolic condition management.
In whole wheat, soluble fiber accounts for 12-13.5% of the total dietary fiber content, which is significant — albeit lower than the percentage contained in barley (see below). One serving of wheat berries contains 16% of the DV for fiber, which equates to four grams, of which about 0.48 grams are soluble dietary fiber (SDF).
However, wheat also contains a type of carbohydrate, known as fructan, that has been associated with gastrointestinal and digestive issues. Fructans are not digested well; instead, they become fermented by our gut bacteria. This may increase or worsen cramping, bloating, constipation, and abdominal pain in individuals with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Fructans are part of a larger group of carbohydrates — FODMAPS — that are also known to cause similar digestive issues.
Lowers cholesterol and blood pressure: The soluble dietary fiber contained in whole wheat has been linked to lower blood cholesterol and blood pressure levels, which may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, as observed in a 2014 study. The wheat group results were as follows:
Total cholesterol: reduced from 224.07 ± 17.76 mg/dl to 219.27 ± 33.86 mg/dl
Systolic blood pressure: reduced from 115.17 ± 14.65 mmHg to 114.83 ± 13.55 mmHg
Diastolic blood pressure: reduced from 76.33 ± 10.74 mmHg to 75.33 ± 9.37 mmHg
However, while the study found that the wheat group experienced an increase in beneficial HDL-C levels, harmful LDL-C levels also rose. Nonetheless, it is generally accepted that consistent consumption of whole wheat helps reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
May lower blood sugar: Whole wheat consumption has been shown to result in a beneficial reduction in postprandial blood sugar levels. The same above 2014 study found that whole wheat consumption lowered fasting blood sugar from 92.30 ± 9.58 mg/dl to 89.93 ± 6.71 mg/dl, which was associated with more efficient use of insulin in the body and better blood sugar management.
Rich source of manganese, phosphorus, and zinc: Wheat berries contain many minerals, and they are particularly rich in manganese (Mn), phosphorus (P), and zinc (Zn). One serving of wheat berries has: 60 mg of Mn (80% DV), 200 mg of P (20% DV), and 2.25 mg of Zn (15% DV). Manganese is a naturally occuring mineral in the human body, with about 25-40% of the body's total manganese content found in the bones. This mineral is associated with energy production and cell protection, and also benefits the bones and immune system. Phosphorus is also a naturally occurring mineral in the human body. The majority of the body's phosphorus can be found in the teeth and bones. Phosphorus helps the body properly absorb nutrients from food, and it supports greater bone health. Zinc, also found in the human body, supports the immune system in fighting off bacteria and viruses, and it also supports DNA production and child development.
Great protein source: One serving of hulled barley contains just a little over half of the protein content in one serving of wheat berries — about 5 grams of protein. While barley does not contain as much protein as wheat berries, barley does outshine wheat in the dietary fiber compartment.
Great source of dietary fiber (more than whole wheat): Like wheat, barley is a rich source of dietary fiber, with one serving of hulled barley containing 6 grams of dietary fiber. This represents 24% of the daily value (DV) for fiber. Barley's soluble dietary fiber (SDF) content comprises as much as 17.8-18.5% of the grain's total dietary fiber content, which means one serving of hulled barley (with 6 grams of total dietary fiber) contains about 1 gram of SDF. Compared to wheat, barley contains a higher percentage of SDF content. One particular type of soluble fiber that is found in barley is beta glucans, which has been found to support gut health and the immune system while helping to enhance satiety (which could aid in weight management). Beta glucans are typically found throughout the endosperm (the middle layer) of the barley grain, which means that removing the outer bran will not negatively affect the grain's soluble dietary fiber content. In fact, removing the outer bran layer increases the grain's beta glucan content.
Lowers cholesterol: An important 2007 randomized control trial observed the cholesterol-lowering effects of barley beta glucan in four treatment groups of high- and low-molecular-weight barley beta glucan, at 3- or 5-gram dosages. The results confirmed that barley beta glucan was most effective at lowering cholesterol levels in the group with high molecular weight (HMW) barley beta glucan at 5-gram dosages. This 5-g HMW group had an observable 15% decrease in levels of total cholesterol, and 13% for the 5-g LMW group — demonstrating that both quality (high molecular weight) and quantity (high dosage) of beta glucans matter in determining its impact on cholesterol levels.
While barley and wheat both have cholesterol-lowering effects, it remains debatable whether one is superior to the other in this regard. One small study did conclude that barley seems to be more effective than wheat at lowering total cholesterol and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, which may be due to the fact that barley contains up to 7% of beta glucans, whereas wheat contains less than 1%.
Lowers blood pressure: Beta glucans, found in the walls of barley plant cells, are also naturally occurring in oats. One study explored the effects of oat beta glucan on spontaneously hypertensive rats, and found that oat beta glucans have antihypertensive properties. Oat beta glucans "prevented the increase in systolic and diastolic blood pressure" in these rats. In humans, oat bread supplemented with 6 grams of beta glucans was found to lower systolic blood pressure (from 114.83 ± 10.95 mmHg to 112.50 ± 12.16 mmHg) and diastolic blood pressure from (77.00 ± 9.15 mmHg to 76.33 ± 8.90 mmHg) — modest decreases, but indicative of lowered blood pressure, nonetheless.
May lower blood sugar: Barley's rich fiber content is beneficial to diabetes and blood sugar management, as fiber plays an important role in reducing and stabilizing blood sugar levels. Because the body takes longer to process fiber, it slows the rate at which your body digests the food you eat — resulting in less dramatic blood sugar spikes and more efficient use of insulin throughout the body. The results of a randomized controlled trial demonstrated this blood sugar management effect: the trial observed the effects of barley beta glucan supplements taken with either a high-carbohydrate meal or drink, and found that the while there was an increase in overall glucose and insulin after consuming the meal or the drink, barley beta glucans were effective at "blunt[ing] the glycaemic and insulinaemic responses" for the food, but not necessarily for the drink.
Food and allergen warning
Because barley and wheat both contain gluten proteins, those individuals with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity are advised to avoid consuming both grain products, including barley- and wheat-derived products.
Our Eden's symbiotic gut health supplement contains barley beta glucans, a prebiotic fiber, which contains only trace amounts of gluten (<40ppm), so the product may be better tolerated by people with gluten sensitivity. Eden’s does not contain wheat fiber, which (in part because of its fructans content) can trigger or worsen symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Thus, particularly if you believe you have an allergy or sensitivity that is exclusive to wheat, and not to other grains, you may be able to enjoy the nutritional and health benefits of Eden's.
Comparing barley vs wheat, both in their whole grain forms have unique nutritional benefits.
Both are rich sources of protein and fiber, but barley has a higher fiber content. The beta glucans in barley, in particular, have pronounced cardiometabolic implications, including a lowering of cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels. Wheat offers similiar health benefits, lowering common markers of metabolic health (cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar), as well. Whole wheat is rich in protein and certain minerals essential to energy production, bone protection, DNA production, and child development. However, many wheat-derived products are made with refined or processed wheat, which is a source of simple carbs that can easily throw off blood sugar levels and, over time, contribute to chronic inflammation and cardiometabolic disorders.
To maximize the nutritional and health benefits of wheat and barley grains, it’s ideal to enjoy them in their whole-grain forms, when available. Knowing we all occasionally have days when we fail to eat the healthiest foods, and can fall short especially on our intake of high-fiber foods (or we find that they seem to contribute to digestive distress, in part because of their gluten and/or FODMAPS content), taking a supplement such as Eden’s — which contains barley beta glucans (and 4 other fibers) and a synbiotic blend of probiotics and polyphenols, as well — may be worth considering; talk to your medical provider or nutritionist.