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The Beta-Glucans of Barley and Oats

by Sue Becker

The “what”?

Ok, I’m writing a book on home flour milling which has lead me to do more research on the health benefits of whole grains. In my 20+ years of teaching I would have to say that I have acquired a good bit of information that I love to share with others.  In the past weeks, however, I have been devouring every bit of information I can get my hands on, and I must say I am more than excited.  Beta-glucans are just one of my most recent “discoveries”.

Beta-glucans are a polysaccharide found in the soluble fiber of most whole grains but have particularly high concentrations in both barley and oats. There has been an increased interest in the past 20 years of the nutritional benefits of beta-glucans.  Of all the components of fiber studied for their function and contribution to health, beta-glucans have been the most extensively documented.

Nutritionally beta-glucans trigger a cascade of events in the human body that help regulate the immune system, making it more efficient.  Beta-glucans stimulate activity of macrophages.  Macrophages ingest and demolish invading pathogens and stimulate other immune cells to attack invaders.  Macrophages also release cytokines, which enable immune cells to communicate with each other.  Beta-glucans also stimulate white blood cells that bind to tumor cells and viruses and release chemicals to destroy these cells.  Studies also show that beta-glucans reduced the incidence of infection in patients with high risk surgeries, as well as shortened intensive care unit stay and improved survival rate.  Bottom line – of all the polysaccharides studied that act as immunostimulants, beta-glucans were found to be the most effective against infectious disease and cancer.

Beta-glucans form a viscous solution in the gut which slows digestion and absorption giving a feeling of fullness for much longer and is the basis for many of the health benefits.  Beta-glucans have also been found to improve insulin response, lower cholesterol levels, and to restore the activity of gut organisms.

So maybe all of this information doesn’t excite you as much as me.  However, it may at least inspire you to eat more barley and oats.  For most of us oats are easy.  A bowl of oatmeal or granola, and who doesn’t love an oatmeal cookie.  Barley on the other hand may be a little more challenging to incorporate.

Barley is sold in two forms, hulled and pearled.  Hulled barley is more nutritious than pearled barley.  Pearled barley has some of the bran polished off, diminishing both the fiber and nutrient content.  Hulled barley can easily be substituted in any recipe calling for pearled barley.

I typically use soft wheat flour for my pastries and cookies, but I recently discovered that barley flour not only works well in cookies but actually adds a wonderful depth of flavor.  Here is a Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe using barley flour.  You will notice it is really just a basic cookie recipe.  So feel free to experiment with some of your favorite recipes substituting barley flour for soft wheat flour.  A cupful of rolled oats could be added as well to increase the beta-glucans even more!