Barley and wheat are two of the most popular grains in the world. They’re part of everything from food to drinks to animal feed (basically, you’ve had both even if you don’t realize it). But which is better for you?

Because they’re so similar in looks, taste, and nutritional value, it’s easy to confuse the two. But don’t be fooled: Barley and wheat do have some key differences.

Whether you’re looking to change up your diet or you simply want to be more aware of exactly what you’re consuming, here are the biggest differences between barley and wheat so you can make the most informed dietary choice.

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Let’s tackle the similarities first.

Both barley and wheat originated in the Middle East and have been around for about 10,000 years. Both are grasses, a family of crops that also includes rice, sugar cane, and corn.

Each grain consists of three layers: the outer bran layer, the endosperm layer, and the nutrient-dense inner core. Different varieties of both barley and wheat are available, but some are more common than others.

When it comes to processing, barley and wheat are a bit different.

You can eat wheat in whole-grain form as wheat berries or sprouted wheat. But you’ll most commonly find it as a flour, thanks to the milling process.

Milling involves cracking the grain and separating the layers — voila, flour! You can now make bread, cookies, pasta, noodles, and breakfast cereals.

Some people ferment wheat to make beer and other alcoholic drinks. And farmers sometimes feed it to livestock.

Barley doesn’t need milling, but manufacturers usually hull it to remove the outer layer.

Hulled barley is a whole grain, while pearled barley is not — pearling is a polishing process that removes the grain’s outer layer. Barley isn’t as common in food as it once was, although people certainly still eat it.

You’ll find hulled and pearled barley in soups, stews, porridge, and baby food. Folks also malt barley to make alcoholic beverages. And barley flour is available for use in products like bread, noodles, and baked goods.

Both barley and wheat are nutritionally dense foods. But the composition of each really depends on the grain’s level of processing.

For example, all-purpose (white) flour made from wheat will contain only some parts of the grain, while whole-wheat flour contains the entire grain. Hulled barley contains all the grain, while pearled barley contains some of the grain.

Macronutrients

Here’s how 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of pearled barley, hulled barley, all-purpose white wheat flour, and whole-wheat flour compare in macronutrients.

Pearled barleyHulled barleyWhite wheat flourWhole-wheat flour
Carbs77.7 g73.48 g76.31 g71.97 g
Protein9.91 g12.48 g10.33 g13.21 g
Fat1.16 g2.3 g1 g2.5 g
Fiber15.6 g17.3 g2.7 g10.7 g

Overall, the macronutrients for pearled barley, hulled barley, white wheat flour, and whole-wheat flour are very similar. But white wheat flour clearly has a lot less fiber. (We see you slacking, white wheat flour.)

Minerals

Here’s how 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of pearled barley, hulled barley, all-purpose white wheat flour, and whole-wheat flour compare in minerals.

Pearled barleyHulled barleyWhite wheat flourWhole-wheat flour
Manganese1.3 mg1.9 mg0.7 mg4.067 mg
Copper0.4 mg0.5 mg0.1 mg0.41 mg
Zinc2.1 mg2.8 mg0.7 mg2.6 mg
Phosphorus221 mg264 mg108 mg357 mg
Iron2.5 mg3.6 mg1.2 mg3.6 mg
Magnesium79 mg133 mg22 mg137 mg
Potassium280 mg452 mg107 mg363 mg

Both wheat and barley are rich in minerals. Whole-wheat flour is higher in manganese than barley, while hulled barley and whole-wheat flour are both high in potassium and iron.

Vitamins

Here’s how 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of pearled barley, hulled barley,all-purpose white wheat flour, and whole-wheat flour compare in vitamin content.

Pearled barleyHulled barleyWhite wheat flourWhole-wheat flour
Thiamine0.2 mg0.6 mg0.1 mg0.502 mg
Niacin4.6 mg4.6 mg1.25 mg4.957 mg
Vitamin B60.3 mg0.3 mg0.04 mg0.407 mg
Folate23 µg19 µg26 µg44 µg
Riboflavin0.1 mg0.3 mg0.04 mg0.165 mg

These forms of barley and wheat are pretty similar in vitamin content, although whole-wheat flour has the most folate.

White wheat flour provides the smallest amounts of these nutrients (except for folate — but whole-wheat flour still edges out white wheat flour for folate content).

Fiber

Wheat loses a lot of its fiber during processing. White flour is more processed than whole-wheat flour, so it contains less fiber. Barley doesn’t undergo as much processing as wheat, so it has more fiber.

Most wheat fiber is insoluble, so it passes through your digestive system and adds bulk to stool (sometimes also feeding those hungry hungry gut bacteria).

Hulled barley has significantly more fiber than pearled barley. Most of the fiber in barley is soluble fiber that forms a gel when combined with fluid. Research suggests this type of fiber might help lower cholesterol and improve blood sugar control.

Protein

Whole-wheat flour is a clear winner here. It provides the biggest protein wallop of all the grains we’ve discussed. But pearled barley has more protein than white flour, so it’s not easy to say wheat wins outright.

Hulled barley has more protein than pearled barley, while whole-wheat flour has more protein than white wheat flour (since white wheat flour loses a bunch of protein during refinement).

Barley and wheat are both nutrient-dense and healthy.

Compared with other types of grains, whole grains (such as whole wheat) are a better source of nutrients like:

Whole wheat is an insoluble fiber and may act as a prebiotic. The results of some observational studies suggest that whole-grain wheat may reduce the risk of colon cancer.

Barley is packed with antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, including:

Hulled barley is generally healthier. Some research from 2015 suggests that hulled barley can help lower blood sugar and improve digestion.

Under a microscope, both grains provide important nutritional benefits. But how easy are they to find? How versatile are they? And what do they taste like?

Availability

Both barley and wheat are readily available and easy to find. But since wheat is the most grown crop in the world and barley is the fourth most grown, it’s safe to say wheat is generally easier to find.

Prep

Most often, you’ll probably buy wheat as flour and use it for baking or cooking. When it’s not rocking its flour swag, you can find wheat in the form of wheat berries or sprouted wheat.

Barley doesn’t need milling. You can buy it as a grain and cook it at home, similarly to rice. It just needs a good wash first.

Both grains are relatively simple once ready for use. The preparation time for either really depends on what you’re cooking.

Flavor

Barley has a more pronounced flavor, because you consume it as a whole grain. Wheat is often a flour that you can bake into different dishes, so it can take on a lot of different tastes.

It’s possible to magically turn flour into a sweet cake or a savory bread — whatever mood you’re in, flour probably has you covered.

Barley doesn’t have quite as many preparation options as wheat, so it’s a bit more limited in terms of flavor variations.

Both wheat and barley are good for you — which one is “better” really depends on your dietary goal. It’s hard to choose one, since each shines in its own ways.

Benefits of barley

Hulled barley has more fiber and beta-glucan than wheat does, and it loses fewer nutrients during processing.

It’s full of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, including potassium, iron, and zinc. Barley may help lower blood sugar and improve digestion.

Barley is a great nutrient-dense alternative to rice and is easy to prepare.

Benefits of wheat

Wheat flour is full of nutrients like folate, copper, and vitamin B6. Whole-grain wheat can be great for gut health and may even reduce the risk of colon cancer.

Wheat flour is also versatile and can be used in so many different ways, taking on different flavor profiles and acting as a general kitchen staple.

These grains will affect conditions such as celiac disease, wheat allergy, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and metabolic syndrome in different ways.

Gluten sensitivity/celiac disease

Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition in which your body can’t tolerate gluten. This can damage the lining of your intestine and lead to uncomfortable side effects like bloating, constipation, and diarrhea, as well as weight loss.

Without diagnosis, it can lead to much more severe health issues.

Both barley and wheat contain gluten: Wheat contains glutenins and gliadins, and barley contains hordeins. If you have a gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, you should not eat barley or wheat.

IBS

When carbohydrates don’t break down during digestion, they ferment in the large intestine and produce gas. For people with IBS, this process can cause side effects like bloating, stomach pain, diarrhea, and constipation.

Both barley and wheat contain carbohydrates that don’t break down during digestion, and research suggests they may trigger IBS symptoms. So, if you have IBS, pay attention to how you feel when you eat barley and wheat.

If you live with IBS and experience symptoms when you eat barley and wheat, you should probably avoid these grains. Your doctor may recommend you try an elimination diet to see which foods trigger symptoms.

Blood sugar and cholesterol

Hulled barley contains more of the fiber beta-glucan than wheat does. Research suggests that beta-glucan can help lower cholesterol and improve blood sugar control.

At least in terms of beta-glucan content, barley has an advantage over wheat.

Oats are another whole grain with nutritional benefits such as vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Like barley, oats are a great source of fiber and beta-glucan.

Oats are the only food source of avenanthramides, antioxidants which may protect against heart disease, according to some research.

Manufacturers typically roll oats into oatmeal, but you can also find oat flour and oat milk. Oats are arguably more versatile than barley or wheat.

They’re also typically gluten-free, which makes them a great choice for people with a gluten sensitivity. Just be sure to buy oats that are labeled “gluten-free” to ensure they’ve been protected from gluten contamination.

Because of their versatility and nutritional value, oats may sometimes be a better choice than barley or wheat.

Barley and wheat are two very popular crops belonging to the grass family.

While food manufacturers usually mill wheat into a flour for use in baked goods and other foods, you can also find wheat in some whole-grain forms. Barley is eaten in both whole-grain and pearled forms.

Both of these grains provide a variety of nutrients and vitamins that make them a healthy part of your diet.

Both grains also contain gluten, so anyone with a gluten sensitivity or celiac disease should avoid them. And both contain carbohydrates that may cause uncomfortable side effects for anyone with IBS.

Barley has more fiber and beta-glucan than wheat and may help lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels.