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Is Barley Gluten Free? What You Need to Know if You're Going Gluten-Free

Updated on May 6, 2012

If you or someone you love has recently been restricted to a gluten-free diet and you're confused, overwhelmed and full of questions, well... you're not alone! Figuring out which foods are gluten-free, where to buy safe food and what on earth you can order when dining out all seems like a colossal task in the beginning. A few years ago our pediatrician speculated my daughter was exhibiting some of the signs of being gluten intolerant. We had her tested for Celiac Disease and were elated when the tests came back negative. We were then warned she might have something called "Non Celiac Gluten Intolerance" and were advised to stay away from any foods containing gluten for a period of time.

During this period of time, I was working in a pediatric Diabetes and Endocrinology Clinic at a hospital. So, since there's an association between Celiac Disease and Type I Diabetes, I was quite educated about gluten-containing foods. I was a medical social worker there and I partnered up with the in-house Dietitian to assist families in living with a variety of endocrinological disorders.

Barley and a Gluten-Free Diet

One of the most common questions asked by parents was: "Is barley gluten free?" The answer to this question is a resounding "NO, NO, NO!" Barley is one of those totally off-limit foods for people with Celiac Disease or gluten intolerance. No ifs, ands or buts about it... it's to be completely avoided.

Here's where it gets tricky though. Barley is a sneaky little devil! It's managed to find its way into seemingly innocent places. So, let's have a more in-depth look at this slithery little grain and discover just what it is and where you might find it.

Barley | Source
Chinese pearl barley is not a true barley!
Chinese pearl barley is not a true barley! | Source

What Looks Like Barley May Not BE Barley!

Barley is a grain and a member of the grass family. It grows a lot like its more popular relative, wheat. Just to add even more confusion, there are a few different kinds of barley and some "barley" isn't barley at all!

Enter job's tears, tear grass, Croix seeds, adlay or adlai and 'jimi", nicknamed "Chinese pearl barley" in many supermarkets, for example. It looks like barley, it acts like barley, it's similar in texture, it tastes like barley, it's also in the grass family, but it's taxonomically different from gluten-laden barley, they are two entirely different botanical genus's. Job's tears are the grains of a tropical grass native to Eastern Asia and parts of Malaysia. It's more similarly related to corn, actually. And, the good news is it's a gluten-free grain. You can find them in Asian markets and expect to pay a pretty penny!

Types of Barley

Barley comes in a surprising number of different forms, so to avoid any confusion, let's take a look at its types.

Pearl barley is probably the one you're most familiar with, at least if you're living in the United States. It's the most popular form of barley. It's less chewy and hard than whole grain barley because of the extensive processing it's undergone. Not only is the outer hull removed, but it's steam processed to remove the bran, and the remaining grain is polished or "pearled" to reveal the inner pearl of the kernel. Unfortunately, it loses some of its nutritional value in the process.

Whole grain barley, also known as hulled barley or barley groats, is the most nutritious of the bunch. Only the outer hull is removed, leaving the bran, germ and endosperm intact.

Pot barley, also called Scotch barley lies somewhere in between whole grain barley and pearl barley. Nutritionally speaking, it's better than pearl barley but not quite as good as whole grain barley. Its hull is polished off, but not to the same extent the pearl variety is. Only about 10% more of the kernel is removed than compared to the whole grain variety.

There is also what's called hulless or "naked barley". Basically, the hull is very loosely attached to the grain and consequently falls off during harvest. The germ is still present, as is most of the bran and endosperm, so hulless barley is still considered whole grain.

The different types of barley also come in different forms. Hulled, pearl, pot and naked barley are all available in the following: kernels (also know as berries), flakes, grits and flour (also called meal or ground). Pearl barley and pot barley also come as flakes, or quick cooking kernels.

Bottom line... all of the above forms of barley have gluten!

Information About Celiac Disease

Barley's Hiding Places

As I previously mentioned, barley tends to be sneaky and has therefore found its way into surprising food products. If you're gluten-free, take heed because the following products can contain barley.

  1. Brown rice syrup can contain barley or wheat (which also contains gluten).
  2. Beware of anything with "malt" in it: malt beverages (including beer), malt extract, malted milk, malt flavoring, malt syrup and malt vinegar. "Malt" is the buzzword to stay away!
  3. Maltose, also called malt sugar is a syrup, often produced in China.
  4. Caramel color is sometimes made from barley.
  5. Wheat-free products often contain barley, like wheat-free cookies and breads.
  6. Some soy milks and rice milks can contain trace amounts of barley protein. Go figure, huh? Check you labels very carefully. Please note I said some, not all!
  7. Some brands of root beer use malt, so watch out. You need to read labels or even call the manufacturers directly.

See, I told you it was sneaky!


Submit a Comment
  • profile image

    Peter A Edwards 

    4 years ago

    Great article on barley. What we do not know may be making us ill. Wheat, Rye and Barley all contain gluten. Yet so many people get confused when it comes to knowing. Some research does wonders, asking does another. Get tested to be sure, before making an informed choice if you want to eliminate products from your diet.

  • zaton profile image


    4 years ago from California

    And here I thought all barley had gluten in it. a great and informative resource - voted up!

  • The Stages Of ME profile image

    Kathy Henderson 

    6 years ago from Pa

    Thanks this was a helpful tip in making recipes for my daughter :)

    Blessings to you

  • profile image


    6 years ago

    Very interesting to learn more about barley. Pinning to my Ways w/ Food: Info… board. Thanks!

  • icmn91 profile image


    7 years ago from Australia

    Barley is definitely not gluten free, you're absolutely right. Didn't know about the Root Beer issue. Do you know of the brands (currently) that should be avoided?

    Kitchen staff at my university college fed me gluten against my will and one of the obvious things that stood out was their lack of familiarity as to which grains contain gluten. The response from the Head of Hall is available on my most recent hub, for those interested.

  • Chuck Bluestein profile image

    Chuck Bluestein 

    8 years ago from Morristown, AZ, USA

    If Celiac disease is related to type 1 diabetes then Celiac disease is related to insufficient amounts of vitamin D. Unlike the other vitamins, vitamin D is a hormone that the skin produces from sunlight.

    There was a terrible epidemic of rickets with children but it was cured with vitamin D meaning it was caused by not enough vitamin D. They are saying that it is the same with type 1 diabetes. Moores Cancer Center proposes that cancer is caused by a lack of vitamin D. The energy that the earth gets in 1 day from the sun is enough to run all of man's devices for a year.

  • wordscribe43 profile imageAUTHOR

    Elsie Nelson 

    8 years ago from Pacific Northwest, USA

    Sharicey, that's strange, huh? I wonder how many times you'd be able to get away with it though... Barley is indeed in some weird and surprising places. Hey, thanks for coming by and commenting!

  • Sharicey profile image


    8 years ago from Rhode Island

    I recently unknowingly had barley in a tea that was recommended to me. Its is sneaky for sure but it didn't seem to bother me. I wonder why? I'll probably test it out again but I'm disappointed that I now have to cut that tea out. Great post.


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