Dec. 8, 2004 -- Barley deserves a place on your plate if you're trying to curb your cholesterol, a new study suggests. The grain contains soluble fiber, the type found in many fruits, vegetables, and oats, and appears to lower cholesterol.
High cholesterol levels are a risk factor for heart disease, the leading cause of death in America. Whole grains have been studied for their impact on cholesterol, but researchers mainly focused on more popular grains, such as oats.
Barley isn't widely eaten in the U.S., although it comes in grain, flour, and flake forms.
Barley's cholesterol-lowering powers were seen in a small study of 25 people with mildly elevated cholesterol levels. Their total cholesterol ranged from 200-240. Ideally, total cholesterol should be under 200, according to the National Cholesterol Education Program of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
Participants included nine postmenopausal women, nine premenopausal women, and seven men. None were taking medicines that affect cholesterol or blood pressure. Participants had also maintained their weight for six months.
Researchers Kay Behall and colleagues led the study, which recently appeared in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Behall works for the Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The study unfolded in two phases.
First, participants spent two weeks on a balanced diet devised by the American Heart Association. Next, they added barley to their fare, sampling menus with low, medium, or high levels of fiber from barley.
Beta-glucan, a soluble fiber found in many whole grains, came exclusively from barley and not supplements. The diet with the most beta-glucan used barley flakes, barley flour, and pearled barley instead of rice and wheat. Lower levels of beta-glucan mixed equal measures of barley with wheat or rice.
There were a couple of rules. Participants promised not to cheat and to eat everything the researchers gave them. They didn't have to cook even one grain of barley. All foods were either served at a lab facility or were packaged for consumption at home.
The barley-based foods made a difference. When participants ate diets with low, medium, and high levels of the soluble fiber beta-glucan, their total cholesterol dropped by 4%, 9%, and 10%, respectively.
The biggest improvements in total and LDL cholesterol levels were seen in the diets with medium or high levels of beta-glucan. "The addition of barley to a healthy diet may be effective in lowering total and LDL cholesterol in both men and women," say the researchers.
The biggest gripes were that there was too much food and that subjects felt very full after their meals. Complaints about bloating and flatulence increased on the barley diets, with the most concerns voiced on the diet with the highest level of beta-glucan.
Can't stand barley? The American Heart Association diet that kicked off the study trimmed cholesterol somewhat, cutting LDL cholesterol by almost 4%. That's less than barley's results, but it's still an improvement.
Other grains, such as oats, may also help, research suggests. In general, experts recommend whole grains over processed, refined, or "instant" grains for maximum nutritional benefits.