Barley: A top crop from your heart to your gut

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A colourful bowl of barley and lentil soup. (Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada photo)
A colourful bowl of barley and lentil soup. (Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada photo)

Barley is an important crop for Canadian farmers and is also an important crop for your health. Barley’s claim to fame has long been its ability to lower cholesterol. And Health Canada says all it takes is three grams of barley soluble fibre per day. That equates to having one-and-a-half barley waffles.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) research scientist Dr. Nancy Ames and her team in Winnipeg continue to explore the role barley plays in lowering cholesterol through clinical trials. They recently discovered other health benefits. Barley is also good for your gut.
“The discovery that barley beta-glucan can modulate the microbiota in the gut suggests barley also acts as a prebiotic which can improve overall metabolic health in humans,” Dr. Ames said.
The barley fibre works by changing the ratio of two important types of bacteria in the gut, called bacteriodetes and firmicutes. Research findings from other scientists have shown that having higher numbers of bacteriodetes and lower numbers of firmicutes in the gut reduces the absorption of fat. These positive changes in gut bacteria are connected to a decrease in cardiovascular disease risk factors like heart attack and stroke, including improvements in body mass, waist circumference, and blood pressure.
“Our research at the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals (RCFFN) was aimed at understanding the biological mechanisms and the factors that affect the cholesterol lowering ability of barley beta-glucan,” Dr. Ames said.
Through clinical trials, participants were randomly assigned to various levels of viscosity (thickness) of beta-glucan per day along with a wheat- and rice-based control diet. Researchers found that the high viscosity beta-glucan was the most effective at reducing cholesterol levels. The good news is that normal production methods create a high viscosity fibre, making it easy to get the health benefits from barley products already on the market. Another interesting discovery is that our genes play a role in how effective the barley beta-glucan will be in reducing cholesterol levels.
“We found that people who had a specific allele related to bile acid production were more responsive to beta-glucan in reducing cholesterol,” Dr. Ames said.
This is good news for consumers and producers alike. The AAFC research on the health benefits of barley will promote the development of new products and increase production.
So enjoy that healthy bowl of barley soup and reap the benefits. Adding barley is a great and inexpensive way to add healthy ingredients to your diet.

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