What to Know About Wheat vs. Barley

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 20, 2023
3 min read

Barley and wheat have long been an integral part of the human diet. Easy to domesticate, these cereals are used for food, drink, and feed production. 

They are similar in taste, look, and nutritional value, but have some significant differences as well. Knowing what wheat and barley offer and how they differ can help you make more informed dietary choices.

Barley is a cereal mainly used in the production of livestock fodder. It's also used to brew beer and make bread, stews, and other dishes. As a whole grain, it's a rich source of fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

Most stores sell barley either as hulled or pearled. Hulled barley undergoes minimal processing. Only the inedible outer shell is removed, leaving the germ and bran intact. Meanwhile, pearled barley doesn’t contain the hull or bran.

Hulled barley has more nutritional value and can better help you meet the recommended intake of certain nutrients, including:

Barley is also a rich source of B vitamins, like niacin and thiamin, and contains a type of fiber called beta-glucans.

Scientists have found that eating barley may offer several health benefits:

Promotes heart health and lowers blood pressure. Barley contains several nutrients that support heart health. These include folate and vitamin B6, both which help reduce homocysteine, a compound that increases the risk of heart disease.

Boosts bone health. Barley contains calcium, phosphorous, copper, zinc, and magnesium. These all contribute to stronger bones. Zinc is crucial in this role and also helps in bone development.

May help prevent cancer. Barley contains selenium, an essential mineral that prevents inflammation.

If you have chronic inflammation, like in Crohn’s disease, you're at a higher risk of getting cancer. Consuming foods containing selenium, which acts as an antioxidant, protects your cells against damage caused by free radicals.

Helps with digestion and weight management. Barley has a high fiber content that promotes the regularity of the digestive system. It also prevents constipation.

Eating foods rich in fiber, like barley, can also help with weight loss. Fiber functions as a “bulking agent” that makes you feel fuller for longer, reducing calorie consumption.

Wheat has many different uses. It's often used to make pasta like spaghetti and macaroni. It also comes in a softer form for cakes, pastries, cookies, crackers, and wheat flour. Additionally, the food industry uses some wheat to make products like starch, dextrose, paste, malt, and alcohol.

Wheat must undergo processing before it can be converted into food. The grain is cleaned and conditioned by adding water to break up the kernel. The kernel separates from the grain, which becomes flour. The kernel also makes graham flour, which can't be stored for long. Other by-products are used as livestock feed.

Wheat contains:

  • Fiber
  • Fat
  • Sugar
  • Carbohydrates
  • Protein
  • Water
  • Calories
  • Vitamins and minerals like selenium, manganese, phosphorous, copper, folate

White wheat is relatively poor in minerals and vitamins because it lacks the most nutritious parts: the bran and germ, which are removed during processing. Whole-grain wheat provides several health benefits when you use it in place of white flour. These benefits include:

Promotes gut health. Wheat bran contains components that function as prebiotics that feed on the healthy bacteria in your gut.

However, when consumed, most of it is added as bulk to the stool for easy passage. It helps shorten the time undigested material takes to pass through the system.

May help prevent colon cancer. Colon cancer is the most prevalent among all digestive system cancers. Scientists have linked whole grains like whole wheat to a lower risk of colon cancer. 

Barley provides more health benefits than wheat, and is an excellent alternative to white wheat. This is because it contains more fiber than wheat. It also undergoes less processing, meaning it loses fewer nutrients. It's also rich in antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins. 

However, both wheat and barley have possible side effects:

Gluten sensitivity orceliac disease. Both barley and wheat contain gluten and should be avoided if you have celiac disease or gluten intolerance.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Both kinds of cereal contain carbohydrates that don't break down during digestion. This can lead to stomach pain, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation, especially for those with IBS.

Blood sugar andcholesterol. Eating too much wheat may lead to an increase in blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Barley is better at controlling blood sugar and cholesterol than wheat because of its beta-glucans.