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Ontario Grain Farmer Magazine is the flagship publication of Grain Farmers of Ontario and a source of information for our province’s grain farmers. 

Barley for health


BARLEY HAS BEEN a staple in Ontario and western Canadian agriculture since farmers first started breaking land. As Canada’s fourth largest crop, barley is grown across the country, with the bulk of production in Alberta.



Barley is divided into three types depending on the end use; malting, food, and feed. Only select varieties are eligible to be graded as malting barley. Only about 20% of malting barley production is actually selected for malting each year; the remainder can be selected for food grade, used for human consumption, or as livestock feed.

Food barley can be any variety of barley, hulless or covered, that has been selected for a food market. Feed barley is a major ingredient in animal feed, and encompasses all barley that isn’t selected for malting or food.

There’s a growing interest from consumers in barley. Food barley is a good source of protein, vitamins, and minerals, and is high in fibre. It contains vitamin B, calcium, essential fatty acids, and insoluble and soluble fibre, including beta-glucan. It can lower the risk of heart disease and help regulate blood sugar levels.

Food barley consumption in 2014 was approximately 360 grams per person per year, compared to 540 grams per person per year for oats and nearly 57 kilograms of wheat. According to Dr. Susan M. Tosh, acting associate director, research, development and technology, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, this leaves “lots of room for growth.”

Tosh is conducting research on barley and the benefits of beta-glucans. Beta-glucans are a major soluble fibre in oats and barley. They are bioactive compounds that help lower cholesterol and blood sugar. Beta-glucans are contained in the cell walls of barley and make up between two and six per cent of the grain, with newer varieties containing up to 10 per cent.

“There are a number of higher beta-glucan barley varieties available in Canada,” says Aaron Beattie, assistant professor, barley and oat breeding program, Crop Development Centre (CDC), University of Saskatchewan. “These have all come from our breeding program here at the CDC. Older varieties like CDC Fibar (nine to ten per cent beta-glucan) and CDC Rattan (seven to eight per cent beta-glucan) are being replaced with newer varieties like CDC Marlina (seven to eight per cent beta-glucan) and HB13324 (seven to eight per cent beta-glucan).”

According to Beattie, the CDC has mostly been focusing on improving the agronomics, mainly yield, but also the disease resistance package of each line due to a large yield penalty associated with the older high beta-glucan lines. Most of these varieties are available from seed growers in Western Canada, but HB13324 is relatively new so growers don’t yet have access; however, the variety looks quite promising, yielding similar to the hulled varieties like AC Metcalfe, a familiar variety. There is also a category of hulless food barley which is high in beta-glucan (six to seven per cent), but is also high in amylose content (close to 40% instead of the usual 25%). The high amylose content is digested slower (like a resistant starch) and so would be good in diets for diabetics.

“These varieties are mainly grown in Western Canada, but they are available to growers throughout Canada,” says Beattie. “However, because we don’t evaluate the performance of these varieties in Ontario or further east, we don’t have a good idea how well adapted or how well they might perform in those regions.”

Health Canada has approved a health claim linking the consumption of barley beta-glucan to reduced blood cholesterol. The health claim applies to suitable foods that contain at least one gram of beta-glucan from barley grain products per serving. One gram equals 35 per cent of the recommended daily intake. The claim is based on evidence that shows consumption of at least three grams of beta-glucan per day helps reduce cholesterol, which is a risk factor for heart disease. The health claim includes de-hulled or hulless barley, pearl or pot barley, barley flakes, grits, meal, flour, and bran, as well as beta-glucan enriched milling fractions. These ingredients can be used in a wide variety of recipes for cooking or baking.

“Generally speaking, consuming three grams per day of beta-glucans is a good benchmark to help lower cholesterol,” says Tosh. “Oats and barley are the best sources of beta glucans, and new varieties that are higher in the fibre are now available with more being developed.”

New varieties with higher levels of beta glucans are now commercially available only from the researcher. However, according to Tosh, they are likely not grown in large enough quantities or in sufficient supply to be contracted. Varieties high in beta glucans could be sold at a premium price with larger quantities.

Other research being conducted around barley includes work on the cholesterol-lowering ability of barley and ongoing research on glycemic response by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. Barley is able to help lower cholesterol levels by increasing excretion of cholesterol and breaking down products of cholesterol. It also supports a healthy microbiome in the gut by aiding in the growth of beneficial bacteria. Three newly developed varieties also offer a range of starch characteristics to suit the needs of food manufacturers as well as help reduce glycemic response, an important factor in the control of diabetes.

The Barley Council of Canada is the national voice of Canada’s barley value chain and supports research that benefits the barley industry. According to Bryan Otto, chair of the Council, they’re supporting research that helps promote and develop the health benefits of barley, including breeding new food varieties, increasing performance and yield of existing barley varieties, and improving the milling and processing methods currently used for food barley.

“The Barley Council of Canada promotes the domestic consumption of barley by providing consumers with good information and resources on why and how they should choose barley,” says Otto. “GoBarley is our consumer campaign to help people understand the many health benefits barley can provide. In addition to increasing consumption within Canada, we’re also trying to develop export markets for human consumption, particularly in South Korea and Japan.”

According to Tosh and Otto, the best way to increase food barley consumption is to inform consumers about its numerous health benefits. The Barley Council of Canada’s consumer-focused website,, raises awareness of the health benefits of barley and provides recipes to incorporate the crop into your diet. Grain Farmers of Ontario is a member of the Barley Council of Canada. •


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