Barley vs. Wheat — Health Impact and Nutrition Comparison
Wheat and barley are versatile, widely used cereal grains. Wheat is mainly used as a food source in different states, and barley is mostly used for beer brewing and cattle feed.
Although there is no significant difference in nutrition comparison, wheat is a better source of minerals and vitamins.
Table of contents
Can you differentiate wheat and barley? Let’s gain insight into the main key points to distinguish them.
Wheat, Triticum aestivum, originated from the Levant. The cultivation of wheat dates back almost 10000 years. It is the second most-consumed grain after rice. The plant’s stalk is long, with spiky kernels in clusters.
Barley, Hordeum vulgare, is the fourth most popularly consumed grain cereal after rice, wheat, and maize. It was domesticated and cultivated in the Near East during the Bronze Age in Mesopotamia about 11000 years ago.
Wheat is a staple food; it is used to make bread, biscuits, crackers, pasta, bulgur, cookies, noodles, and other breakfast products, and, to a lesser extent, for beverages and animal food.
Barley is mainly used in beer brewing and the production of other alcoholic beverages. It is also largely used as livestock fodder.
Both wheat and barley are used for direct cooking.
There are two forms of produced and edible barley – hulled and pearled. Hulled barley is minimally processed; the bran and germ are intact, and only the edible outer shell is removed, saving most of its nutrients in this way. Pearled barley is polished and has no bran.
Barley is easy to cook like rice, and wheat needs some preparation before cooking - it should be milled into flour or broken and pre-boiled into bulgur, which unfortunately diminishes wheat’s nutrient content. So, below we will reveal the nutritional content comparison of wheat and barley.
There is no significant difference between the nutritional content of wheat and barley. They are considered nutritional goldmines since they are powerful sources of protein, carbohydrates, fiber, essential vitamins, and minerals. Check the macronutrient comparison chart for more information.
Fiber and protein
Wheat is 0.5g higher in dietary fiber and more than two times in protein than barley.
Wheat is especially richer in insoluble fiber, while barley is higher in soluble fiber.
Among all proteins found in wheat and barley, gluten is worth mentioning. Gluten is a common name for some proteins in cereal, which ensures the shape and chewy texture of foods like glue. The gluten protein in barley is hordein, and the gluten found in wheat is gliadin. There are some gluten-related disorders, which we will discuss later.
Let’s look at the mineral content of wheat and barley. From the viewpoint of minerals, barley is the winner because it is radically higher in selenium, inconsiderably higher in phosphorus, and slightly higher in copper, zinc, magnesium, and manganese.
On the other hand, wheat contains less sodium.
What about vitamin comparison? Barley is considerably higher in vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6, A, and folate. It also has four times more vitamin A. So, in this context, barley is the titleholder.
Barley is higher in selenium – the essential element for our health. Higher selenium status is essential for human reproduction function. It has antiviral, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory effects and reduces the risk of autoimmune thyroid disease and different types of cancer (1). What is more, a high intake of selenium-rich foods may increase the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Barley is also higher in copper, which contributes to the formation of red blood cells and body tissues and the proper function of the endocrine and cardiovascular systems. It is also involved in the pigmentation of hair and skin (2).
All B vitamins are concentrated in the bran or germ of wheat and barley, so most of these are lost during processing. B vitamins contribute to the metabolism and nervous system function, providing us with essential energy and nourishing our skin and blood vessels (3).
Barley is higher in dietary fiber. Dietary fiber decreases the risk of type 2 diabetes, prevents constipation, contributes to weight loss, shortens intestinal transit time, reduces the risk of colorectal and breast cancer, and reduces cholesterol and the risk of coronary heart disease (4, 5). According to one study, a high intake of food rich in dietary fiber prevents gallstone disease and the need for cholecystectomy (6). Besides fiber, wheat is a great source of phytochemicals that may have beneficial effects on health: for example, lignans have antitumor activity on colon cancer cells (10).
Downsides and Risks
Gluten intolerance and allergy
We finally got to the most concerning contemporary issues related to gluten. Different people may react to gluten in different ways. According to a review published in 2012, there are three primary forms of gluten reactions: autoimmune (celiac disease, dermatitis herpetiformis, and gluten ataxia), possibly immune-mediated (gluten sensitivity), and allergic (wheat allergy) (7).
Celiac disease is the most common immune-mediated small intestinal disorder among people of European origin, affecting about 1%. People with celiac disease have a genetic predisposition related to the HLA-DQ-2 and HLA-DQ-8 gene mutations, but it doesn’t mean that every person with this predisposition has celiac disease. Clinical presentations vary from the classical intestinal symptoms (diarrhea, bloating, vomiting, stomach pain, constipation, weight loss, etc.) to the extraintestinal symptoms (osteoporosis, anemia, neurological symptoms resulting from malabsorption of nutrients).
Dermatitis herpetiformis presents with a blistering rash. The incidence is about 1:10,000 in the UK and among European Americans, and 4:10,000 and 6:10,000 among the people from Sweden and Finland, respectively. The skin symptoms start with small erythematous vesicles, which rapidly turn into the urticarial papule accompanied by burning and itching.
Non-celiac gluten sensitivity has similar symptoms as celiac disease, which appear a few hours or days after gluten consumption. In this case, the high antibody levels and intestinal damage are absent, contrary to celiac disease.
Wheat allergy is the immunological response to wheat proteins, associated with high levels of immunoglobulin E, known as the allergic marker in the blood. There are different types of wheat allergy, depending on the way of allergen exposure and the underlying mechanisms. Classic food allergy affects the respiratory or gastrointestinal tract. Other forms include skin allergy, wheat-dependent exercise-induced anaphylaxis, baker’s asthma or rhinitis, and contact urticaria. Symptoms depend on the type (7).
It is important to note that all these conditions can be treated with a gluten-free diet.
Except for gluten, there are some other points of concern. Wheat germ agglutinin (WGA) is another protein found in wheat, leading to similar intestinal disorders like gluten by damaging epithelial cells. Researchers use this feature to create anti-tumor drugs (8). According to a study published in 2019, WGA demonstrated maximum toxicity toward acute myeloid leukemia, even in low doses (9).
- Nutritional Contents and Medicinal Properties of Wheat: A Review
- Effects of wheat germ agglutinin on human gastrointestinal epithelium
Fat Type Comparison
Comparison summary table
|Lower in Saturated Fat|
|Lower in price|
|Rich in minerals|
|Lower in Sugar|
|Lower in Sodium|
|Lower in Glycemic Index|
|Rich in vitamins|
|Lower in Cholesterol||Equal|
All nutrients comparison - raw data values
Which food is preferable for your diet?
|Low Fats diet|
|Low Carbs diet|
|Low Calories diet|
|Low Glycemic Index diet|
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Vitamins & Minerals Daily Need Coverage Score
All the values for which the sources are not specified explicitly are taken from FDA’s Food Central. The exact link to the food presented on this page can be found below.
- Barley - https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/170285/nutrients
- Wheat - https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/169744/nutrients
All the Daily Values are presented for males aged 31-50, for 2000-calorie diets.