Is Pearl barley high in gluten?

Pearl barley does contain gluten, but it’s generally considered low in gluten compared to other gluten-containing grains like wheat. The gluten content of pearl barley ranges from trace amounts up to 3-4% gluten. For comparison, wheat flour contains around 12-14% gluten.

What is pearl barley?

Pearl barley is a grain that has had the outer bran layers removed through polishing. This gives the grains a white, pearl-like appearance. It is the most common form of barley sold and eaten.

Like other grains such as wheat, barley contains gluten. Gluten is a group of proteins found in certain cereal grains like wheat, barley, and rye. When flour and water are mixed together, the gluten proteins form an elastic network that gives bread dough its chewy texture.

Does pearl barley contain gluten?

Yes, pearl barley does contain some gluten. However, compared to other gluten-containing grains, pearl barley is relatively low in gluten.

Most varieties of pearl barley contain between 0.2-3.5% gluten. Some specialty low-gluten varieties may contain only trace amounts around 0.2% gluten.

In comparison, wheat flour typically contains around 12-14% gluten. So wheat contains about 4-7 times more gluten than pearl barley.

Gluten content of pearl barley vs wheat flour

Grain Gluten content
Pearl barley 0.2-3.5%
Wheat flour 12-14%

Is pearl barley gluten-free?

No, pearl barley is not considered gluten-free. True gluten-free foods contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten.

While pearl barley is low in gluten compared to wheat, it still contains over 20 ppm of gluten. This means it cannot be labeled as gluten-free.

However, some individuals who need to follow a gluten-free diet can tolerate moderate amounts of gluten below 20 ppm. These people may be able to eat small servings of pearl barley without issue.

Effects of pearl barley for people with gluten sensitivity

The effects of eating pearl barley can vary significantly for people with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease:

  • People with celiac disease must avoid all sources of gluten. Even trace amounts found in pearl barley can trigger symptoms.
  • People with non-celiac gluten sensitivity may be able to tolerate small amounts of gluten. Some can include moderate servings of pearl barley without issues.
  • Those with wheat allergy should avoid pearl barley due to potential cross-reactivity. The protein structures in wheat and barley are very similar.

In terms of severity, pearl barley generally causes fewer issues compared to wheat for those with gluten sensitivity. But any gluten intake should be discussed with a healthcare professional.

Cooked vs dry pearl barley gluten content

The gluten content of pearl barley is typically measured when it is in its uncooked, dried form. This represents the maximum potential gluten content.

When pearl barley is cooked in water, some of the gluten leaches into the cooking liquid. This reduces the actual gluten content of the cooked barley.

One study found that cooking decreased gluten content by 35-45% compared to dry pearl barley. However, gluten is not completely eliminated through cooking.

Gluten content: Dry vs cooked pearl barley

Form Gluten content
Dry pearl barley 0.2-3.5%
Cooked pearl barley 0.1-1.9%

Other types of barley and gluten

In addition to pearl barley, other forms of barley include:

  • Hulled barley – has had the tough outer husk removed but retains more bran layers than pearl; higher in fiber and nutrients
  • Barley flakes – made from hulled or pearled barley grains that are steamed and rolled into flakes
  • Barley flour – ground powder made from pearl or hulled barley

Like pearl barley, these other forms of barley also contain gluten. However, barley flour tends to be higher in gluten due to finer grinding and higher surface area.

Gluten content of different barley types

Barley type Gluten content
Pearl barley 0.2-3.5%
Hulled barley 0.3-4.0%
Barley flakes 0.2-3.0%
Barley flour 3.5-4.5%

Health benefits of pearl barley

Despite containing some gluten, pearl barley offers some health benefits including:

  • High in fiber – helps control blood sugar and promotes digestive health
  • Rich in vitamins and minerals like selenium, copper, phosphorus
  • Contains antioxidants like catechins
  • May help lower cholesterol and blood pressure
  • Low glycemic index can help control blood sugar

The fiber, nutrients, and antioxidants in pearl barley support heart health, gut health, and stable energy levels. These benefits are similar to other healthy whole grains like oats and brown rice.

Risks of pearl barley for gluten intolerance

While pearl barley is relatively low in gluten, it can still pose issues for those with gluten intolerance including:

  • Abdominal discomfort, bloating, gas
  • Diarrhea, constipation
  • Headaches, fatigue
  • Skin rash, eczema
  • Joint pain

In people with celiac disease, even small amounts of gluten from pearl barley can damage the small intestine villi and lead to malabsorption of nutrients. Other autoimmune disorders can also be triggered.

Precautions when eating pearl barley with gluten intolerance

Those with gluten intolerance who want to eat pearl barley should take some precautions including:

  • Consume only certified low-gluten varieties under 20 ppm gluten
  • Eat only in well-cooked form to reduce gluten content
  • Limit portion sizes to 1/3 cup or less per serving
  • Avoid if you have celiac disease or wheat allergy
  • Be aware it is often processed near wheat and cross-contamination is likely

Talk to your healthcare provider to see if moderate pearl barley consumption may be suitable for your degree of gluten sensitivity.

Alternative grains to pearl barley

Some naturally gluten-free alternatives to pearl barley include:

  • Oats – contain avenin protein but not gluten
  • Rice – brown, white, wild, basmati etc
  • Quinoa
  • Buckwheat
  • Millet
  • Sorghum
  • Teff
  • Amaranth
  • Corn

These gluten-free whole grains provide similar health benefits to pearl barley. Oats in particular offer similar fiber, minerals, and nutty flavor as barley.

Is barley malt extract gluten-free?

Barley malt extract is derived from sprouted barley grains. Although the gluten content is reduced during the malting process, barley malt extract is generally not considered gluten-free:

  • May contain 3-8 ppm gluten
  • Not safe for those with celiac disease
  • Those with mild gluten sensitivity may tolerate small amounts

Barley malt extract is often used as a sweetener in foods. Check labels to see if it is used in gluten-free products.

Is barley grass gluten-free?

Barley grass refers to the young leaves of the barley plant. Barley grass is considered gluten-free and is safe for those with celiac disease. This is because:

  • Only the grains contain gluten protein, not the leaves
  • Barley grass is harvested prior to grain formation
  • Gluten content tested below 5 ppm

Barley grass is sometimes used in juices, supplements, or powders for its antioxidant content. But it does not provide the same nutrients as pearl barley grains.

The bottom line

In summary:

  • Pearl barley contains moderate amounts of gluten, approximately 0.2-3.5%
  • It is not safe for those with celiac disease or wheat allergy
  • Some with mild gluten sensitivity may tolerate modest portions
  • Cooking can reduce gluten content slightly by 35-45%
  • Barley alternatives include gluten-free whole grains like oats, rice, quinoa
  • Barley grass is gluten-free but does not offer same nutrition as barley grains

Speak to your healthcare provider if you are considering incorporating pearl barley into a gluten-free or wheat-free diet.

Should you eat pearl barley with gluten sensitivity?

  • If you have celiac disease, no – Pearl barley contains gluten and should be completely avoided.
  • If you have non-celiac gluten sensitivity, maybe – Some people may tolerate small, occasional amounts of pearl barley. However, it really depends on the individual and severity of intolerance.
  • If you have a wheat allergy, avoid – Due to potential cross-reactivity with the proteins in wheat.
  • If in doubt, avoid – There are many nutritious gluten-free grains you can substitute for barley.

The risks of trace gluten exposure need to be carefully weighed. Work closely with a knowledgeable healthcare practitioner when deciding whether to add barley to a gluten-free diet.

Are whole barley and pearl barley the same?

Whole barley and pearl barley both come from the barley grain, but they have some important differences:

  • Whole barley has an inedible, fibrous outer hull removed but still retains its bran and germ layers.
  • Pearl barley has the hull along with the bran layers removed through polishing. Only the starchy endosperm remains.
  • Whole barley is darker, chewier, and more nutritious with 4 grams fiber per cooked cup. Pearl barley is paler, softer, and lower in fiber with 3 grams per cup.
  • Due to more processing, pearl barley has a milder flavor and is quicker cooking than whole barley.
  • Gluten content is similar – both range from about 0.3-3.5% depending on the variety.

For most barley uses like stews or pilafs, pearl and whole barley can be used interchangeably. Whole barley requires more soaking and cooking time to soften.

How much gluten is in barley?

The gluten content of barley can range approximately:

  • Pearl barley: 0.2-3.5%
  • Whole (hulled) barley: 0.3-4.0%
  • Barley flakes: 0.2-3.0%
  • Barley flour: 3.5-4.5%

So most types of barley contain under 4% gluten. In comparison, wheat flour contains about 12-14% gluten.

The variety of barley, growing conditions, and processing method all impact final gluten content. In general, whole grain barley and barley flour tend to be higher in gluten than pearl barley or flakes.


In conclusion, pearl barley does contain moderate amounts of gluten and is not suitable for a strict gluten-free diet. But it may be tolerated by some people with minor gluten sensitivities, especially when served in small portions. For those who need to avoid all gluten, substituting gluten-free grains like oats, quinoa, or rice can provide similar nutrition to barley without the gluten risk. Those with celiac disease or wheat allergy should avoid all forms of barley.

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