Barley vs Quinoa: Which is Better?

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Barley and quinoa are two foods commonly eaten as cereals and also added to soups. They are healthy alternatives to many sugar-laden kinds of cereals commonly eaten today.

Our discussion focuses on how the nutrients found in barley and quinoa differ and how these two foods are beneficial to health.

Introduction to Barley & Quinoa

Barley has the scientific name of Hordeum vulgare, and it is the domesticated form of the original wild barley (1). Barley is in the grass family, Poaceae, and is considered an important grain that is often used in cereals.

It is also used in bread and soups, and it is used as animal fodder and even to make beer. Barley is marketed as a healthy grain product and it is very rich in nutrients (2).

It is the fourth most popular grain in the world, is grown in many countries, and is able to adapt to a range of conditions, although it grows best in temperate climates (3).

Quinoa, Chenopodium quinoa, is not a type of grass but rather a plant in the Amaranthaceae family, which has edible seeds (4).

Similar to barley, quinoa comes in a variety of cultivars and is now grown around the world. The different varieties of quinoa mean that it can grow in many different climates, and even at different altitudes.

Many people use quinoa as a cereal but it is also commonly used in broths or even as part of a salad (5).

In recent years, quinoa has become more popular, with many people viewing this as a healthier alternative to sugar-laden breakfast cereals.

Both barley and quinoa can be prepared in many different ways and used as nutritional foods.

Nutritional Table Comparison

NutrientBarley per 100gQuinoa (uncooked) per 100g
Calories per 100g (kcal)354368
Carbs (g)73.564.2
Sugars (g)0.80.9
Glucose (g)00.19a
Fructose (g)00.20a
Sucrose (g)00
Starch (g)052.2
Protein (g)12.514.1
Fiber (g)17.37
Sodium (mg)125
Lipids (fats) (g)2.36.07
Polyunsaturated fatty acids (g)1.113.29
Monounsaturated fatty acids (g)0.2951.61
Saturated fatty acids (g)0.4820.706
Cholesterol (mg)00
Glycemic (GI) index20 to 2253
Vitamin A (IU)2214
Vitamin B1 – thiamine (mg)0.6460.36
Vitamins B2 – riboflavin (mg)0.2850.318
Vitamin B3 – niacin (mg)4.61.52
Vitamin B5 – pantothenic acid (mg)0.2820.772
Vitamin B6 – pyridoxine (mg)0.3180.487
Vitamin B9 – folate (µg)19184
Vitamin B12 (µg)00
Vitamin C (mg)00
Vitamin D (µg)00
Vitamin E (mg)0.572.44
Vitamin K (µg)2.20
Lutein + zeaxanthin (µg)116163
Magnesium (mg)133197
Calcium (mg)3347
Potassium (mg)452563
Manganese (mg)1.942.03
Phosphorus (mg)264457
Iron (mg)3.64.57
Zinc (mg)2.773.1
Selenium (µg)37.78.5
Copper (mg)0.4980.59
Gluten (g)4.23b0

The nutritional data in the above table are given for hulled barley and also for uncooked quinoa.

The data are obtained from the USDA website (6, 7), except where indicated otherwise. Data for a, b are from (8, 9), respectively. All nutrients are given as amounts present per 100 g.

Barley vs Quinoa Health Comparison

The nutrient content and health advantages of both barley and quinoa are compared using findings from scientific research.

Barley Helps the Heart, Blood Vessels, and Blood Sugar

The fiber in barley has many benefits for digestion and other organs in the body. It also is beneficial in lowering the harmful LDL cholesterol associated with atherosclerosis, and it helps lower blood pressure (10, 11).

Barley also has more polyunsaturated fats than saturated fats present. It is the polyunsaturated fats that are the healthy type of fat while saturated fat is largely considered to be the unhealthy type of fat (12).

This may help in reducing the risk of heart disease due to LDL cholesterol.

One aspect of the endocrine system is blood sugar control. When we have too much sugar in our blood our pancreas releases the endocrine hormone insulin.

This helps move the glucose from the blood into cells. Barley helps this system and actually decreases blood sugar after a meal (13).

This is because of the low GI index of barley, the low sugar content, and the high fiber content. The high fiber also helps people feel full faster, so may help stop people from overeating.

Overeating can lead to obesity and type 2 diabetes (14).

Barley Can Help the Immune System and Cellular Reactions

Barley contains high concentrations of the minerals zinc and selenium.

These minerals help regulate the immune response (15). While quinoa has both these minerals as well, barley has a much higher amount of selenium.

The high amount of B3 (also known as niacin) in barley is helpful because niacin is converted by the body into nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD).

The NAD is an important coenzyme needed for metabolic reactions of cellular respiration (16) These reactions are how we get energy from the food we eat.

The presence of other B vitamins is beneficial because they also act as coenzymes making it possible to get energy from food.

B vitamins also help the nervous system to function, and some of the vitamins like B6 help red blood cell formation (17).

Barley Helps the Eyes and the Kidneys

As we age, we become susceptible to vision loss and problems like macular degeneration.

Lutein and zeaxanthin are abundant in barley and are two nutrients that help reduce the chance of macular degeneration in older age (18).

Barley has more vitamin A per 100 g than quinoa. This vitamin helps form proteins in the eye. Vitamin A is therefore important for our vision (19).

A surprising benefit of barley is that it helps prevent kidney stones from being made. Kidney stones can cause a lot of pain if they grow big enough and do not pass easily.

Researchers found that consuming barley was associated with a reduction in the amount of oxalate or calcium phosphate that was deposited in the kidneys (20).  

Barley, therefore, is a food that helps keep the kidneys healthy.

Quinoa Can Help with Inflammation and Oxidant Damage

Many illnesses, including cancer, are linked to damage caused by oxidant chemicals (21).

Quinoa has useful plant compounds such as betacyanins and phenolics which help protect cells from damage and excess inflammation (22).

Betacyanin is one type of betalain, another type is betaxanthin. These betalains are present in varying amounts depending on the variety of quinoa (23).

These betalains have high anti-oxidant abilities, meaning they also provide protection to cells against damage from harmful oxidant chemicals formed during reactions.

The presence of vitamin A and vitamin E in quinoa is beneficial because these are also two anti-oxidant vitamins that have other useful functions such as helping the eyes, the immune system, and the skin.

Quinoa Is Good for Digestion and Is Gluten-free

Quinoa has an advantage over barley because it has no gluten present, while barley does contain gluten.

Although most people have no problem with gluten, people with celiac disease become ill if they eat food that contains gluten. (24).

This is because their immune system responds to gluten, causing damage to the intestines. People with celiac disease cannot eat foods that contain gluten.

This gluten sensitivity reaction can be very harmful and makes it difficult for individuals to plan their meals.

Research has found that patients who have celiac disease can tolerate eating quinoa (25). This suggests that quinoa can be used as a substitute for grains that are routinely eaten.

There is dietary fiber in quinoa, which is also beneficial for the proper functioning of the digestive system (26).

There is more fiber comparatively in barley but this is not helpful for people with gluten problems.

Barley is, however, good for digestion for people who are not sensitive to gluten.

Quinoa Helps the Blood, Nerves, Muscles, and Bones

Quinoa has higher concentrations of iron, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium when compared with barley.

These minerals are all important in the proper functioning of the nerves and muscles.

Calcium and phosphorus are essential for forming healthy and strong bones (27).

Phosphate from the phosphorus along with the calcium forms hydroxyapatite, which is a strengthening mineral needed to make healthy bone tissue.

Sodium and potassium are important in nerve impulse transmission. These electrolytes work with calcium to propagate a nerve signal (28).

Magnesium helps nerve and muscle function and even positively affects blood sugar (29). The high iron levels of quinoa are a further benefit.

We need iron because this attaches to the protein in our blood cells.

It is the protein hemoglobin to which oxygen attaches on the blood. This is how oxygen is carried around the body through the bloodstream (30).

Barley vs Quinoa Taste

Barley has a nutty flavor and is quite chewy (31). It adds a nice flavor to dishes and can be added to various foods and even used instead of rice.

Some describe the taste of barley as similar to brown rice. Barley goes well with many dishes and can be used as a base for stir fry meals or even for casseroles.

Quinoa has also been described as having a nutty taste but some may consider this pseudo-grain to be too bland or to even taste bitter.

Apparently, the bitter taste is from the presence of saponins, a plant compound found in quinoa (32).

Toasting or buying pre-rinsed quinoa may help reduce the bitter taste if that is a problem. Some quinoa tastes earthier or nuttier depending on the cultivar, and the method of preparation.

Barley vs Quinoa Appearance  

Barley can grow from 2 to 4 feet tall. The cultivated barley has a seed head that is comprised of three flowers (33).

The seeds are enclosed by a husk, which is called the hull. This is usually removed during processing.

Hulled barley is still considered a whole-grain food because the high fiber bran layer is still present.

Pearled barley is less healthy because the husk and some of the bran layer, are removed in a polishing process (34).

This means that pearled barley loses the whole grain benefits of hulled barley.

While hulled barley is a tan color, pearled barley is a lighter cream color.

Quinoa is an annual plant that produces small edible seeds. It can grow as tall as 9 ft depending on the cultivar (35).

The plant changes color from green to rust-colored as it ages and it has a large taproot system. The seeds can vary in color from white to rust, and even black (36).

The color depends on the cultivar that is harvested. The different seed colors can be purchased as white quinoa, red quinoa, or black quinoa.

Of the three colors, white is the most commonly found and is sometimes also called golden quinoa.

Which is Better?

Quinoa and barley are both useful as healthy alternatives to sugary cereals.

They have similar amounts of nutrients including vitamins A, most of the B vitamins, and vitamin E. They are also both rich in beneficial minerals.

In general, quinoa is a better bet because it can also be eaten by people who cannot eat gluten-containing foods such as people with celiac disease.

It also has more of certain minerals like potassium, magnesium, iron, and calcium than barley.

The one disadvantage of quinoa is that people may not like the taste. There are ways to prepare quinoa to improve the taste, or one can rather choose barley instead of quinoa if there is no gluten sensitivity.

Barley does contain almost all the same nutrients as quinoa and has a lot of fiber.

It is still a good choice compared with cereals or foods that are high in cholesterol, fat, or sugar.

Both barley and quinoa have a place in a healthy diet since they are rich in vitamins and minerals, contain more polyunsaturated than saturated fats, contain fiber, and have no cholesterol.