First off, let’s get one thing straight: Rice and barley are both fantastic foods. They’re both wholesome grains that can be a beneficial part of your diet, and the decision of which one is healthier will mainly come down to your personal needs and priorities. But if we were forced to come up with a clear winner, what would we choose?
Here are some of the health benefits of both grains, and some guidance for which one you should choose based on your own personal pros and cons. (And don’t worry — at the end, I’ll tell you our choice for the winner.)
First off, let’s talk about the lesser-known grain: barley. Barley is neither a new food nor should it be considered a health fad. Barley has been grown for thousands of years, and it’s one of the most unprocessed, wholesome grains out there.
Much like rice, there’s more than one type of barley. Pearl barley is one of the most popular forms to consume. Pearl barley has one major benefit over rice: It contains a lot more fiber than even wild rice. According to the USDA Nutrient Database, one cup of pearl barley contains 31 grams of dietary fiber, while one cup of wild rice contains about 10 grams.
Another big benefit to barley: There is almost no chance that your barley is a genetically modified crop. Although rice isn’t particularly high-risk, there is a growing movement to introduce Golden Rice, a type of rice that is genetically modified to contain vitamin A, into food markets, according to GMO Compass.
Finally, barley is a great choice because of its low glycemic index (GI). GI refers to the length of time it takes a carbohydrate to be broken down by the body using insulin. When you consume a high-GI food, your body produces a rush of insulin to quickly shuttle the energy stored in that food into your cells. A low-GI food, by contrast, is associated with a slower, steadier release of insulin, making GI an important factor to consider. Though everyone can benefit from a low-GI diet, it is particularly important for anyone who is diabetic, insulin-resistant or pre-diabetic. With a GI rating of 22, pearl barley is considered low GI (though some types of barley rank at 66, which is considered a medium score).
Now for rice. Rice is a healthy addition to most diets, and I particularly love it in curries, soups and stir fries. One of the biggest benefits of rice is that it is naturally gluten-free (unlike barley, which is decidedly NOT gluten-free). If you have a gluten sensitivity or Celiac disease, this makes rice the obvious choice. But even if you have no problem with gluten, you may want to consider this factor. Gluten has an inflammatory effect in the body, and while most people never notice symptoms, there are some health experts who advise that everyone should steer clear of gluten.
Now for some of the things you need to be careful about. Rice is prone to become contaminated with arsenic, mainly due to the way it grows.
“Rice has higher levels of inorganic arsenic than other foods, in part because as rice plants grow, the plant and grain tend to absorb arsenic more readily than other food crops,” states the USDA.
The federal agency has even gone so far as to set rice guidelines for pregnant women, due to the potential effects of arsenic on a developing fetus.
Finally, rice does have a higher GI than barley. With scores of 48-67 (depending on the type of rice), it is considered a medium-GI food.
If I had at choose…
Given its low GI score, fiber content, minimal GMO risk and many healthful benefits, the winner is: Barley!
However, that’s not to say rice can’t be part of a healthful diet. I absolutely love the stuff, and will continue to use it in many of my favorite meals.