Rye vs. Barley: Nutritional Benefits, Usage, and Health Impacts

Author: Yean Toh | Published date: April 26, 2024 | Category: Nutrition



Rye looks like wheat, except that it is slightly thinner, longer and darker in colour. It is also used like wheat, mainly for making bread.
While grains in general are "fruit seeds" with the different components fused together, they are even more closely fused in rye. It is hard to separate the carbohydrates from the protein, fibre and other nutrients. Rye flour is therefore not easily refined and contains a richer mix of nutrients.

Rye contains gluten. But rye and barley have less gliadin, the problematic component of gluten. Oats has minimal gliadin. If you are gluten sensitive, a good approach would be to initially avoid all gluten grains. Once your condition stabilises, you can slowly introduce grains like oats and rye to see if you still react.

Rye is the most recent grain in the human diet, with rye cultivation beginning in Germany only about 2,600 years ago. Consumption of rye is largely limited to the European countries, including Central and Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. The three best known rye products are:

  • Sourdough bread, which is bread made with natural yeast from the environment. Breads from all types of flour can be made this way. Rye flour, however, does not work well with regular yeast and all rye (or rye and wheat) breads are sourdough. This is one of the healthiest forms of bread you can eat, as studies show that sourdough bread is more easily digested and its nutrients better absorbed. Yet sourdough bread causes the least spike in blood glucose level and the least insulin response. In this respect, even white, refined sourdough bread is better than wholemeal wheat bread made with added yeast.
  • Pumpernickel is a very dense and heavy bread made with rye flour and broken rye berries. This is a very filling bread and a thin slice will keep a person feeling full for several hours. In fact, rye in general has this satisfying quality.
  • Crispbread is a very dry and crispy "biscuit" made from whole grain rye flour, without chemical additives. It is high in fibre and contains zero fat. On its own, rye crispbread is unpalatable but it can be quite delicious with cheese, salads and other toppings.


Barley is more often drunk than eaten. The Chinese drink barley water as a fever remedy and also to dispel "body heatiness". Beer, which is brewed from barley, is likewise reputed to have a cooling effect on the body.

While carbohydrates and grains are being blamed for causing problems like diabetes a obesity, barley has been scientifically proven to actually help these problems.

  • In 2009, Japanese researchers reported that study subjects had lower blood glucose levels if they switched from eating rice to eating barley.
  • In 2010, Dutch researchers reported on a study in which 10 men were given either cooked barley or refined wheat bread for dinner. The next morning, they were given a high glycemic index breakfast that had 50g of glucose. Those who ate barley the night before were found to have 30 percent greater insulin sensitivity than those who ate refined wheat bread.

Prowashonupana barley

In Ayurveda or traditional Indian medicine, barley is recommended as a cure for "sweet urine disease". In fact, people on diabetes medication are advised to monitor their blood glucose levels if they eat barley, for fear of low blood glucose or hypoglycemia.

This quality of barley probably stems from the fact that it has a very high fibre content- called Prowashonupana barley. In comparison, the fibre content of other grains range from averaging 17 percent and reaching as high as 30 percent in the case of a special variety 3.5 percent for brown rice, to 10.6 percent for oats and 12.2 percent for wheat. And what's unique about barley fibre is that it occurs throughout the grain, not just on the skin or bran. So even "pearled" or polished barley still contains good amounts of fibre.

Chinese Barley

'Chinese' barley: When the Chinese talk about "barley", they actually refer to a different grain, known as Chinese barley, Job's tears, yi ren in Chinese, or hato mugi in Japanese. This is the main type of "barley" eaten, or boiled into barley water, throughout East Asia.
Chinese barley is fatter and rounder, with a wider slit down the middle, compared to regular barley. The taste and nutritional properties of the two grains are similar. In traditional Chinese and Japanese medicine, Chinese barley is claimed to have anti-tumour, anti-cancer and other medicinal properties.

The fibre content of Chinese barley is about 20 percent, slightly higher than that of regular barley. This fibre is also present throughout the grain.

This content is adapted, with permission, from Book 1 of 2 : The Wonders of Nutrition by Dr Ang Poon Liat. MBBS, M.MED (PAED), MRCP (UK PAED), FAMS, MD.



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