Barley & the glycemic index

Written by carla jean mckinney
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Barley & the glycemic index
A low-glycemic food, barley can help manage blood sugar levels. (barley image by saied shahinkiya from

With a glycemic index of only 25, barley -- a widely available whole grain with origins in India and Ethiopia -- can help keep blood sugar stable, aid in the management of diabetes, and lower cholesterol levels. Consumed as a grain, in processed forms such as flakes, or in beverages such as barley tea or water, barley plays a significant role in supporting the body’s insulin production, helping to maintain healthy blood sugar levels and weight.


Barley, like oats and other whole grains, is rich in beta-glucan soluble fibre and selenium. Barley seeds contain B vitamins, vitamin E and folic acid. Barley can be cultivated in most parts of the world and is a reliable and low-cost food source. Barley’s role in regulating blood sugar and managing type 2 diabetes has given this ancient grain new prominence as a key component of a healthy diet.

The Glycemic Index

The glycemic index measures the rate at which foods raise blood sugar. Based on glucose content, carbohydrates in foods are rated on a scale of 1 to 100 relative to pure glucose at a value of 100. Foods high on the glycemic index, with values above 70, raise blood sugar quickly. This can cause a spike in blood sugar, followed by a rapid dip. On the other hand, foods low on the glycemic index, with values of 55 and under, raise blood sugar slowly and help to maintain stable blood sugar levels. Since barley has a glycemic index of 25, it ranks as one of the best foods for keeping blood sugar stable.


In 2003, the Agricultural Research Service, an agency associated with the US Department of Agriculture, undertook studies to investigate the association between diets high in the beta-glucan fibre found in barley and reduced insulin resistance -- a diminished response to the action of insulin in the body. These and other studies appear to suggest that barley products may not only improve blood sugar levels in diabetics, but also help to prevent type 2 diabetes by reducing factors associated with insulin resistance.


Because of its low glycemic index, the carbohydrates in barley are absorbed more slowly into the body, keeping blood sugar steady. Because barley is also rich in soluble fibre, it slows the absorption of glucose from higher-glycemic foods, which can reduce the spikes and dips in blood sugar associated with those foods. High-fibre, low-glycemic foods such as barley also curb hunger and carbohydrate cravings, assisting not only with blood sugar management but also weight loss.


Barley has been used for centuries for both food and medicine. Perhaps best known as an ingredient in brewing beer, barley is also a reliable grain source in many parts of the world. A barley byproduct, malt sugar can be used as a natural laxative. Barley grass is used to brew tea, and barley water, sometimes flavoured or sweetened, offers a nutritious alternative to teas. Barley’s many contributions to health are still being investigated.

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