What Is Barley and Is It Gluten-Free?

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Barley is not a gluten-free grain and lurks in many processed foods as malt.
Image Credit: ULADZIMIR ZGURSKI/iStock/GettyImages

It looks like brown rice, it's cooked like brown rice, so it must be brown rice, right? When it comes to barley, this couldn't be further from the truth.


Although barley and brown rice look like they're related, barley is actually one of the three primary gluten grains, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation. So, if you're gluten-sensitive or just following a gluten-free diet, you'll want to steer clear of this grain in all shapes and forms.

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Barley looks a lot like brown rice but is generally tougher and chewier in texture. Today, the grain is mostly grown for animal feed or as malt, which is used in the production of alcoholic beverages, like beer, according to the Whole Grains Council.


Reading Gluten-Free Labels

If you're sensitive to gluten, you'll want to keep a careful eye on the nutrition panel of your foods. Unlike wheat, barley isn't one of the top eight allergens companies must list on their packaging, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation. So, always double-check the ingredient list for hidden sources of gluten.

To make matters even more tricky, barley is often found in other ingredients but not listed independently. For instance, barley is commonly used to make malt (including malt syrup, malt flavoring and malt vinegar), an ingredient found in a variety of processed foods from milkshakes to whiskey, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation.


Although the barley content in malt is generally small, it can be risky for those who are gluten-intolerant.

Other foods that commonly contain barley (or barley-based ingredients, like malt) include:

  • Food coloring
  • Canned soups
  • Alcoholic beverages (especially beer and whiskey)
  • Milkshakes
  • Cereal and granola
  • Soy sauce
  • Brewer's yeast
  • Potato chips
  • Brown rice syrup


If you're not sure whether a food contains barley (or gluten in general), you can also check for a "gluten-free" label on the packaging. This means that the product contains less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten, making it safe for most gluten-sensitive people to eat, according to the FDA.

You can also look for a Certified Gluten-Free seal on your food, which means the product has been tested gluten-free and certified by the Gluten-Free Certification Organization, which signifies the food has less than 10 ppm of gluten.



Gluten-Free Barley Alternatives

Barley is high in healthy nutrients like fiber, protein, magnesium and vitamin B3, according to the Whole Grains Council. But if you're gluten-sensitive or intolerant, you can substitute with some other, equally nutritious whole grains.

Quinoa is a seed (yes, it's technically a seed) that you can eat instead. Unlike most grains, quinoa is actually a complete protein, too, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids your body can't produce on its own, according to the Whole Grains Council. Like barley, quinoa is also a source of fiber, iron and magnesium.


Or, you can also add buckwheat to the menu. Despite its name, buckwheat is not actually wheat and is a gluten-free whole grain. Try pairing buckwheat with your preferred protein or sprinkle the toasted groats onto your favorite salad.

For healthy gluten-free barley alternatives, try these products from trusted brands.

Better Body Foods Organic Quinoa


Try quinoa as a base for omelets and sunny-side-up eggs.
Image Credit: LIVESTRONG.com Creative

Quinoa is a great gluten-free barley alternative. Better Body Foods' organic quinoa is free of preservatives and artificial ingredients so you can rest assured these grains are gluten-free.


Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $9.99

Bob's Red Mill Organic Gluten-Free Creamy Buckwheat Hot Cereal

Pop this buckwheat in the microwave for a creamy side dish in minutes.
Image Credit: LIVESTRONG.com Creative

Although it may sound like wheat, buckwheat is actually a type of cereal that's totally gluten-free. You can prepare this cereal much like oatmeal, combining it with hot water.


Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $17.99

Pride Of India Extra Long Brown Basmati Rice

Brown rice goes with practically everything, and this brand is both gluten- and GMO-free.
Image Credit: LIVESTRONG.com Creative

If you want to stick to some more basic grains, you can opt for brown rice, which is also naturally gluten-free. Brown rice is also a whole grain, so you'll get the same health benefits, too.

Buy it: Amazon.com; Price: $9.99

Gluten-Free Grain Recipes

If you want to prep some of your own gluten-free grain dishes, try one of these three.

1. Quinoa Porridge

Quinoa is a healthy gluten-free barley substitute that packs both protein and fiber.

You may not consider quinoa a common breakfast food but it's a great substitute for cereal or granola, which can contain malt (a gluten ingredient). This porridge takes only 22 minutes to prepare and is high in protein and healthy, unsaturated fats.

Get the Quinoa Porridge recipe and nutrition info here.

2. Instant Thai Peanut Chicken and Soba Noodle Soup

This soba noodle soup is made of buckwheat noodles, safe for gluten-free diets.
Image Credit: Jackie Newgent, RDN/LIVESTRONG.com

This Thai peanut chicken soup is made with buckwheat noodles, making this recipe a great gluten-free option. Only 316 calories per serving, this soup only requires a handful of ingredients to prepare and packs about 5 grams of fiber total, which knocks out about 20 percent of your daily required value (25 grams for women and 38 grams for men, according to Harvard Health Publishing).


Read the ingredient list to ensure the peanut sauce this recipe calls for is gluten-free.

Get the Instant Thai Peanut Chicken and Soba Noodle Soup recipe and nutrition info here.

3. 10-Minute Veggie Fried Rice

Brown rice is a common gluten-free grain you can add to just about any dish.

Fried rice is a lunch-time staple and this recipe includes some nutritious veggies, too. Unlike the fried rice you'll get in most restaurants, this recipe is prepared with coconut oil, which will give your grains a unique, buttery flavor.

Get the 10-Minute Veggie Fried Rice recipe and nutrition info here.




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