The Best Grain

Patient Expert

Lately I have been eating a lot of beans. They are an almost perfect food for people with diabetes, because they have a lot of protein and so little effect on our blood glucose level.

But beans aren't perfect because the protein they have is incomplete. They lack some essential amino acids.

Eating some grain with the beans gives that perfect balance. If you have diabetes, the only problem is to decide what is the best grain.

We need to eat at least three ounces of whole grains every day, according to the 2005 "Dietary Guidelines for Americans" . They say that at least half of the grains that we eat should be whole.

That best way to get that grain certainly has to be a certain form of barley. That's partly because barley has by far the lowest glycemic index of any grain ever tested. Barley has half the glycemic index of the grain that we eat the most, wheat. Researchers have tested barley in five separate studies and came out with an average of 21 on the index where glucose is 100. That means we can eat twice as much barley as whole wheat kernels and five times as much barley as glucose for the same increase in our blood glucose.

Barley is also a great source of fiber, potassium, iron, and calcium. Like oats, it is an excellent source of soluble fiber, which probably helps to lower cholesterol levels.

Those glycemic index tests were of pearled barley, which is the form of barley that we eat the most. Pearled barley is the most processed. They remove all the outer hulls and endosperm, leaving only the inner pearl.

Pot or Scotch barley is less processed. They just remove the hulls, leaving the endosperm and pearl. But even this minimally processed barley has lost the vast majority of protein, fiber, fat, and minerals.

They don't remove anything from hulless barley. When we eat hulless barley, we eat the whole kernel, including the nutrient-rich bran and germ.

This means that hulless barley is truly the best form of the best grain.

Researchers haven't tested hulless barley yet for its glycemic index, which has to be even lower than that of pearled barley because of the much greater fiber it has. The reason that they haven't tested it yet is probably because very few people have ever heard of it.

While barley is a major crop around the world, people in the United States eat only 2 percent of what we grow, according to the National Barley Foods Council. Animals eat most of it, and a lot is used to make beer.

Hulless is a really small proportion of the 2 percent of America's barley crop. It is such a small amount that the largest retailer of natural and organic foods - Whole Foods ( - doesn't sell it.

It is, nevertheless, becoming better known and more popular. A great source of hulless barley that I have used for years is Bud and Jean Clem's Cowboy Foods in Bozeman, Montana.

Another good source is Bob's Red Mill in Milwaukie, Oregon. These people call it "hull-less barley," which actually makes more sense.

There must be a spelling rule that prohibits three letters in a row. At any rate, I can't think of any such word, and logically it should be spelled hullless barley. But almost nobody spells it that way. Google finds 14,500 occurrences of "hulless barley," 765 for "hull-less barley" (including Bob's Red Mill) and only 42 for "hullless barley." Reluctantly, I will follow the majority, because the rules of English spelling are descriptive and not prescriptive.

The only store that I know that sells hulless barley is the second largest retailer of natural and organic foods - Wild Oats. I have bought it at their flagship store in Superior, Colorado, near my home.

Once you get hulless barley home you, of course, need to cook it, and that can be a problem too. I still remember when I cooked my first hulless barley more than 10 years ago. I hated it.

But it was me that was the problem, not the hulless barley. Unless you cook it long enough and with enough water, it can be awfully chewy, and at that time I didn't cook it correctly.

Nowadays, I always cook it in my rice cooker. Recipes for barley differ in the amount of water to use, but I follow the Joy of Cooking recommendation of four cups water to one cup barley to make it soft. Use less water if you want it firmer.

The best way to get started with hulless barley is to substitute it for about half of the rice that you might otherwise eat. Adding it to the bean stews like I have been eating lately is also simple and tasty.