Barley is an ancient grain whose time has come. Archeological discoveries in the Nile Crescent indicated that barley, along with millet and wheat, were used for food as far back as 8000 BC.¹ Debate has occurred as to whether the cultivation of grain was for food or fermented drink. We have learned that cereal starch was not nutritionally available in a raw state unless it was sprouted or cooked and sprouted grain becomes mash for alcohol if allowed to ferment. As a result, primitive alcohol production occurred as a natural bi-product of food preparation.²
Historical references of barley’s usefulness as a food with both health benefits and medicinal properties have been found in Greek, Egyptian, Ethiopian, and Roman literature.¹ Barley was the preferred food of gladiators, who were called hordearii or “barley men”. ¹ Barley was also described as a staple food for the Roman army.¹
There are many references to barley as a food source in the Bible, but also as a seasonal marker describing the time of year, “during the barley harvest”.³ The Book of Ruth describes Ruth’s barley gleaning and threshing as she gathers enough food for herself and her mother-in-law.⁴ Jesus in John Chapter 6, 1-14 feeds the masses with 3 fish and 6 loaves of barley bread.⁵
Fast forward to the last 25 years, and you will hear that considerable research has taken place in North America to understand the health benefits of whole cereal grains. Studies regarding oats and barley have shown reduced cholesterol and blood glucose levels with consumption of that grain.¹ There have been several beneficial components identified including tocopherols, phenolics, phytosterois and soluble and insoluble fibre. The most recognized ingredient is beta-glucan, a soluble fiber which plays a role in managing cardiovascular disease risk by reducing blood lipid levels and blood pressure and in diabetes by lowering blood glucose levels.
Recently, researchers have focused their efforts to extract soluble fibers in grain products in order to supplement our diet with higher levels. An analysis of various cereal grains have indicated that barley had the highest levels of soluble fibre (3 -11%) and that oats ranked second (3-7%). Hulless barley had the highest beta-glucan content, and levels in excess of 11% have been achieved through genetic selection.
In the early 1990’s a group of seed growers formed a company in order to market a new class of hulless barleys to swine and poultry producers. As little nutritional information was available on this class of genetics, research was necessary to attain its optimum use. A nutritional profile was developed at a research lab, proving that hulless barley was superior to other barley types. The protein content was 14%, test weight 62 lb/ bu., digestible energy 1.75 Mcal/lb, and the beta-glucan 4.5%.
As this product was completely free of the husk or hulls, food utilization was attempted. Eventually a cooking formula was identified that required one cup of barley, 4 cups of water, brought to a boil and simmered for 1.5 - 1.75 hours until done.
This produced a fairly chewy product. Further refinement that improved the overall quality was achieved by boiling the barley the night before and cooking it 45 minutes the next day for a softer product.
The barley industry in both Canada and the United States spent considerable amounts of money proving the value of barley as a food ingredient. However, the long cooking time prevented barley from getting a larger market share or increased utilization. Current barley products include pot and pearled barley and barley flour .The pot and pearled barley are produced by pearling (milling) malt barley to 20% and 35% respectively. This process removes the outer hull but also removes the bran. The cooking time of these products range from 45 – 55 minutes which limits consumer’s acceptance in today’s fast food society.
A research project was developed by Marvin Nakonechny for Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development. The objective was to use whole grain hulless barley, reduce the cooking time to 15 minutes or less, and to create a texture and “mouth feel” similar to rice. In 2003 this project was successfully achieved at the Alberta Department of Agriculture laboratory. Many test samples were done and yes, we had quick cooking, whole grain barley.
Working with barley is difficult as it is very delicate and sticky. Finding the right cooking and drying combination for the pilot study was a challenge. After considerable searching it was decided that custom built equipment was necessary. The equipment was subsequently built and then set up at the Leduc Food Processing and Development Centre for commercial test production. After extensive modifications of equipment and process parameters, success was achieved after large quantities of test barley were consumed. The end result was the production of 4 tonnes of Quick Cooking whole grain barley that is ready for consumption after 10 minutes of cooking.
Taste testing, consumer evaluations, and chef testing revealed the product was curiously novel, interesting and tasty, not too different from rice, but also completely substitutable with rice. The best news is that all the health benefits of barley were preserved.
As each stage of market development was achieved, finding a production location and investors became urgent. Our investor, the Hendriks Group, provided the business plan and the required funding to proceed and start the next phase.
A new company, Progressive Foods Inc., was formed.
On the basis of previous commercial partnership collaboration, the Hendriks Group introduced Progressive Foods Inc. to the Cascade Hutterite Colony in Manitoba that has a large workforce and had an existing building which sat idle. Cascade proved to be a blessing as they have a skilled work force including electricians, stainless steel welders, plumbers, knowledge of food processes and safety requirements. Their ability to remodel the building to create a production site with a small capital investment has immensely contributed to the success achieved to date.
Currently the production process continues. Various markets such as the University of Alberta Hospital, to whom we are indebted for their early interest, are being developed. Restaurants and hotels are now coming on board and promoting the use of this unique prairie product. Other institutional centers such as federal correctional centers, senior care centers, and school cafeterias have expressed interest due to the convenience and health properties of this regional product. The next steps to be undertaken are large, but the rewards so far have been gratifying.
American Association of Cereal Chemists (AACC). The Future of Barley. CFW Report. St. Paul (MN): Cereal Foods Word: September – October 2005, 50(5).
Early Man May Have Taken Up Agriculture To get High on Booze; Patrick McGovern, DNA Read the World Friday,
December 25, 2009 21 : 18 1ST
The Book of Samuel 21:9
The Book of Ruth 2:18 – 3:5
The Book of John 6:1 – 14
Patterson, C.A., Oat and Barley B-Glucans: Healthy Canadian Ingredients. Quality is in Our Nature. 2006. July.
Report NO. S000010. Soils and Animal Nutrition Laboratory, O.S. Longman Building, Edmonton Alberta, MAR 4 - 91