Is Barley Gluten-Free?
Barley is one of the oldest crops known to man. It was first cultivated over 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia. Today it’s grown all around the world. There are many varieties of barley, but they’re all genetically identical and produce the same kind of grain: malted barley (Hordeum vulgare). Malting is the process of removing the husk from the grain and soaking it in water until it becomes soft enough to grind into flour. After milling, the wheat or rice flour is then kneaded and shaped into a ball called a kasha. The dough is heated again to make it rise, which makes it easier to roll out and shape into loaves of bread.
The word “barley” comes from the Old English words bara meaning barley and glæd meaning grain. The word “gluten” means both gluten and wheat, so barley is technically a type of wheat.
But it’s not just any old wheat; it’s the most ancient variety of wheat ever cultivated—the original one! That’s right: the stuff that gave us bread, beer, pasta, cookies…and now gluten-free breads made with barley flour!
How did we get here? How did we get to this point where people with celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, and wheat allergies need to eat barley flour in order to make safe bread?
The short answer is that wheat became much more popular than barley for human consumption in most of the world during industrialization. When Europe and North America started increasing their population and urbanizing in the 1800s, farmers began growing mostly wheat instead of other grains. As a result, most bakeries were set up to make bread from wheat instead of barley or other grains. It’s a bit surprising given the fact that most people in the world today are not primarily wheat eaters!
When people with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity go shopping for food, they usually have a lot of choices for everything except safe breads. In the majority of countries, wheat is king and celiacs must suffer through industrial, expensive, low-nutrition, off-taste, stale bread made with wheat.
The only other common “safe” grains are corn (maize), rice, and quinoa—and those aren’t used much for making bread. That’s why you’ll notice a lot of celiacs in the United States eating primarily corn tortillas from Mexico!
But even in Mexico, there’s no such thing as normal white bread. They don’t have Wonder Bread or anything similar to it.
In most of the world, they don’t have sandwich bread at all! Most people eat tortillas, rolls, flatbreads, chapattis, and other kinds of food instead. These kinds of safe breads are usually made with rice flour or other non-wheat flours like garbanzo, fava, or soybean.
That’s right: even if you’re eating a loaf of “normal” bread in the United States, you’re eating a specialty product most similar to hardtack (aka sea biscuits). It doesn’t taste like the soft stuff found in most sandwich shops or grocery stores, but it’s cheap and tasty when toasted.
Most people with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity are living in first world countries. There are some safe breads made with rice, corn, potato, quinoa, and other grains, but most of them are high-priced specialty items.
What if we could take the humble barley back to its rightful place as king of the grains, or at least restore it as one of the major industrial grains?
What if we could make breads and other products from it that are nutritious and delicious?
Sources & references used in this article:
The gluten-free diet: safety and nutritional quality by L Saturni, G Ferretti, T Bacchetti – Nutrients, 2010 – mdpi.com
A quantitative competitive PCR system to detect contamination of wheat, barley or rye in gluten-free food for coeliac patients by I Dahinden, M von Büren, J Lüthy – European Food Research and …, 2001 – Springer
Evaluation of qualitative and quantitative immunoassays to detect barley contamination in gluten-free beer with confirmation using LC/MS/MS by LK Allred, JA Sealey Voyksner… – Journal of AOAC …, 2014 – ingentaconnect.com
Commercial assays to assess gluten content of gluten-free foods: why they are not created equal by T Thompson, E Méndez – Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2008 – Elsevier
Effect of barley and oat β-glucan concentrates on gluten-free rice-based doughs and bread characteristics by F Ronda, S Perez-Quirce, A Lazaridou, CG Biliaderis – Food hydrocolloids, 2015 – Elsevier