They’re both consumed as whole grains or cereal grains. They’re both cultivated and cherished across the world. They’re both a part of the human diet, whether processed or in their whole forms. And they both have similar plant structures. So, wheat vs barley: what’s the difference?
Whole wheat is something that people in North America are highly familiar with. And both barley and wheat are important in so many ways. Those with a wheat gluten sensitivity or a wheat allergy might go for barley instead, remembering that the substitute is glutinous as well. They’re also both a rich source of dietary fiber.
But did you know that one of these grains is used in livestock fodder? And though they’re both a staple in alcoholic beverage production, one is used more than the other. The fact of the matter remains that they are different grains with different spheres of influence.
Just what is wheat? What’s barley, for that matter? Let’s discuss these grains and their botanical, agricultural, and nutritional differences.
What is Wheat?
Wheat (Triticum aestivum) is an annual grass that grows between 3 and 5 feet tall. At full maturity, the slender stems display flower heads at their tips. Each head contains 30 to 50 wheat grains. Two parts of the plant are consumed by humans: the grass (or microgreens) and the seeds. Wheatgrass is ground to provide a nutritious shot of juice prized in the food industry. The golden-brown seeds are milled into wheat flour, which is used in a plethora of foods. In more recent years, people have connected the grain to irritable bowel syndrome and gluten intolerance, caused by allergic reactions to the wheat germ agglutinin.
In summary, wheat is a grass that has many uses in foods across the world. It has also spurred many to take up a gluten-free diet.
What is Barley?
Barley (Hordeum vulgare or Hordeum distichum) is also a member of the grass family. It, too, is grass, reaching up to 4 feet tall. The top portion of the barley plant consists of spikes that produce anywhere from 20 to 60 grains. Humans consume the hulled barley whole in cereals or ground into barley flour. Pearled barley is the most common whole grain form of the plant sold in stores. Barley does contain gluten in the form of hordein, and it’s also used as livestock feed. Both the grain and the fodder feed farm animals. Barley contains a great deal of clinical nutrition, including more fiber than white and brown rice. Hull-less barley is often used to add some crunch to a salad, or it is sometimes cooked into a soup.
In summary, barley is a grass that also has manifold uses all over the globe. It has a high nutritional value. While it can be a wheat replacement for those with specific wheat gluten allergies, like wheat, barley also contains.
What’s the Difference?
Both wheat and barley have very similar characteristics and uses, but they aren’t the same plant. Here, we’ll tackle a few of the differences that arise in examining the barley vs wheat dilemma.
Plant and Seed Structure
The plants have such a similar structure, it’s no wonder they are both used in cereal grain production in the same manner. Because they are so similar, it’s very difficult to tell the two plants apart before they reach maturity. That’s because the seeds – which form late in the reproductive phase – have very different structures. One way to tell the difference between barley and wheat is to examine the auricles or the ear-shaped areas where the grass branches from the stem of the plant. Barley auricles do not have hairs and branch out from the stem. Wheat auricles are much smaller and hairier.
Each plant has spikes that produce seed heads. Here, barley and wheat differ slightly. The seed head of barley produces 20 to 60 grains, whereas that of wheat produces 30 to 50 grains. The seeds themselves have very distinct differences too. While both barley and wheat have seed coverings called the lemma and the palea, those of the grain wheat are loosely fitted, while the outer layer of barley is fused to the inner seed.
Growth Habits and Types
There are six basic wheat types. Each item below discusses their names and their growth habits:
- Hard Red Winter Wheat: this plant grows in fall, and is harvested in spring. It’s commonly used in whole grain wheat products, as well as all-purpose flours. It is cultivated in the Central US Plains and Montana, Idaho, and California.
- Hard Red Spring Wheat: this wheat is planted in spring and harvested in mid-summer. It’s typically grown in Montana and North and South Dakota. This grain wheat is used to fortify bread due to its high protein content.
- Soft Red Winter Wheat: sown in fall and harvested in spring. It’s grown in the northeastern portions of the United States and is often incorporated into pastries.
- Soft White Wheat: planted in spring and harvested in late summer to early fall. Grown in Michigan, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, this plant is used for its outer bran layer, making it excellent for whole wheat products.
- Hard White Wheat: sown in early spring and harvested in early fall in the Dakotas. It is typically used to make noodle dough but is also great for those in search of whole grains.
- Durum Wheat: in mid-spring, this wheat is planted, and it’s harvested in late summer. It’s grown in North Dakota, Montana, Arizona, and California.
There are two basic barley types. Each item below discusses their names and their growth habits. Both species can be sown in spring and fall, and mature in 60 to 70 days. They are chiefly grown in Idaho and Montana. Note that distinct versions of each type probably don’t exist anymore due to genetic modifications in selective breeding of the plants:
- Six-row Barley (Hordeum vulgare): the most commonly cultivated barley. Called ‘six-row’ because the spikelets on the seed head produce 3 kernels arranged in six rows around the stalk. The kernels are smaller and the husk of this barley is substantial. This is most commonly used for animal feed, although recently it has been used in alcohol production in the United States.
- Two-row Barley (Hordeum distichum): not as common as six-row. In this species, the grain is arranged in two rows around the stalk. The kernels are larger than that of six-row and have less protein and husk content. This is the premier barley used in past and present beer-brewing.
Agriculturally, both barley and wheat are grown on a mass scale. However, wheat is ranked second as a worldwide dietary staple. Humans on average make it 19% of their diet. Compare that to rice at 20% and you begin to see just how important whole grain wheat is. Barley on the other hand comes fourth in the ranking. Growers cultivate it in areas where wheat cannot grow, usually in extremely high altitudes. Wheat and barley are both incredibly important crops in their own right.
Barley and wheat are processed in distinctly different ways during production. Wheat is usually milled into wheat flour, wheat bran, or whole wheat flour. Whole grain wheat flour is the result of milling wheat without extracting the wheat bran and wheat germ. In refined wheat flour, the germ and wheat bran are removed. Whole wheat flour thus has a grainier texture than white flour or plain wheat flour. White flour comes from milling just the endosperm layer of the seed. The process indicates why whole wheat flour and regular wheat flour are very different with different health benefits. Whole wheat flour gets the “whole grain” distinction that points to healthful benefits consumers look for in stores.
Barley doesn’t need to be milled to be consumed. Instead, it’s processed into hulled barley which is used in cereals and salads. Sometimes it is processed one step further into pearled barley, which is just polished hulled barley. Hulled barley, therefore, is considered whole, whereas pearled barley is not. Both hulled barley and pearled barley have high amounts of dietary fiber. When it comes to alcohol, malt is an essential part of the process of production. Raw barley is soaked in water for 8 hours, dried, and then soaked for another 8 hours to create malt.
It’s interesting to note that the remnants of the plants post-harvest are used with near-identical results: as a source of straw, particularly useful to us as gardeners as a type of straw mulch.
We’ve talked a little about the uses for specific types of wheat and barley and have determined each is more appropriate in certain situations. Barley is the premiere grain used for alcohol production. People do eat barley whole, thrown into soups and salads, but half of the US barley crop goes to animal feed. Livestock, such as pigs, chickens, sheep, and goats eat barley and then become food for people.
We’ve touched on the ways people eat wheat. The processing of white wheat and other wheat types makes it possible to consume it in bread, pastries, pasta, and doughs of all kinds. It’s used in breakfast cereals and is sometimes employed for brewing white ales (much less than barley, though).
When it comes to essential nutrients, barley beats wheat every time. Barley’s high nutritional content directly relates to the processing used to make the grain commercially available. Because barley is not milled, it loses fewer nutrients and retains more fiber. White wheat, on the other hand, loses nutrients in the milling process.
Both have health benefits and both are a rich source of insoluble fiber for the human digestive system. But the wheat needed to support the digestive system pales in comparison to barley. When it comes to fiber and control of blood sugar, wheat is not as good as barley. Wheat bran contains soluble fibers needed to lower blood cholesterol which in turn assists with blood sugar control. Low blood sugar contributes directly to the prevention of heart disease. Barley is better if you want to improve blood sugar control overall. The high content of beta-glucans in the grain makes it a more effective food medicine. When it comes to fiber, wheat does have health benefits, but barley has more nutrients and iron content. It’s great for those who want to increase red blood cells to combat anemia.
Whole grain barley is a great source of clinical nutrition. It’s packed with B vitamins and assists with weight loss. People who drink a glass of barley water before each meal are more likely to lose weight according to medical research. On the other hand, improper consumption of wheat can prevent weight loss. Barley is also considered an excellent ally in the prevention of colon cancer. Those who consume 6 ounces per day can decrease their risk of colon cancer by 15 to 20%.
A Word on Gluten
It’s worth mentioning that those who don’t tolerate gluten should not seek out barley as a gluten-free option. Both grains contain gluten, albeit in different formats. If you have gluten sensitivity, both grains will cause problems. Celiac disease, for instance, is a chronic condition that results from the consumption of the two grains we are currently discussing, among others. Celiac disease is accompanied by digestive issues, chronic inflammation, and over time consumption of gluten can cause the very issues that these grains can treat in those without celiac disease. Those with celiac disease will experience the tell-tale stomach pain and chronic inflammation from barley just as they would most wheat fiber. So note that neither of these is good for those with sensitivities to gluten.