In recent years, various grains have come into the spotlight for their numerous health benefits and varied uses. In particular, quinoa has been elevated from a health food to a daily staple in kitchens across the country. With more and more people using quinoa, you may be wondering what the difference is between it and all the other grains available at your local grocery store. Well, we’re here to help you understand the contrasts in a variety of grains by breaking down their characteristics and benefits in an easily digestible manner. In a series of posts, we will look specifically at quinoa, barley, amaranth, and millet, focusing on the variances between them. Let’s start with classic barley and how it differs from the new standout, quinoa.
What Is a Grain?
Before we can dig deeper into the differences between barley and quinoa, we must first understand what constitutes a grain. The simplest explanation is that grains are seeds capable of becoming fully grown plants, but are harvested before they reach full maturity. More specifically, a grain can be broken down into three edible parts: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. The bran is the seed’s outer skin, which is packed with fiber. The germ is the nutrient-dense embryo of the seed, full of vitamins, minerals, fiber, essential fatty acids, and more! And finally, the endosperm is essentially the germ’s food supply and is the primary source of starchy carbohydrates. Most of the grains we eat are also encased in an inedible hull. While some of these hulls are more easily removed than others, in certain cases, it's difficult to remove without taking away some or all of the bran and germ with it.
What Is a Whole Grain?
Diving further into the details, let’s also define a whole grain. Achieving this label simply means that 100% of the bran, germ, and endosperm were retained by the grain throughout the hulling process. This rule applies no matter how the grain is packaged for consumer sales.
What Is Gluten?
Chances are, you have heard something about gluten over the course of the last several years. Some say it is fine, while other swear it is bad. The truth is, there is a lot of misinformation surrounding gluten, including what it is and where it is found. (I promise, this will all be important for understanding the difference between barley and quinoa.)
In actuality, very few grains actually contain gluten–just wheat (and its relatives, such as spelt), barley, and rye. However, those are the three grains most commonly found in bread and pastas. Put plainly; gluten is a protein that develops when flour and water are combined and then kneaded into dough. The network of gluten proteins keeps these doughs from falling apart by creating the elastic texture of dough. The right level of gluten development is key to fresh pasta, pizza crusts, and most baked goods.
For most, gluten will not be a problem and is really only a factor when an individual has a health condition that may prevent them from consuming gluten such as celiac disease. The two main proteins in gluten are glutenin and gliadin. People with this condition, and a few others, cannot tolerate the gluten proteins because their bodies reject them, causing illness and severe digestive issues.
What’s the Difference: Barley vs. Quinoa
Now that we have a solid understanding of what constitutes a grain and how gluten can become a factor, we’re ready to discuss the nuanced differences between barley and quinoa.
It will probably come as a shock to most that quinoa is not technically a grain. Especially since it is often referred to as an ancient grain. In reality, quinoa is the seed which is harvested from a species of a plant known as goosefoot. While it is officially a seed, it is also considered to be a pseudocereals. This means that quinoa is neither a cereal nor a grain, and is in actuality more closely related to spinach and beets than to “other” cereals or grains. Barley, on the other hand, is a cereal and is often used as food or to make beer and other malted drinks.
Out of the two grains, barley is the only one to actually contain gluten. Like we discussed above, this probably is not a dietary factor for most, but it is an important distinction. It can, however, make a difference in certain dishes or foods. Cooked whole, it has a meaty chewiness that lends itself well to bulking up any dish it's added to. It's especially high in amylopectin, one of two components in starch, so it adds a nice silkiness to soupier foods.
Speaking of cooking, quinoa cooks much faster than barley. When whole, barley can take up to 45 or 60 minutes to cook through and may need to be soaked beforehand. However, most barley that is available at your local supermarket will be labeled "pearled." This means that both the hull and bran has been removed, and often times the germ as well. Pearled barley cooks up faster and is slightly more tender than hulled barley. Although if you're looking for the most robust option, whole hulled barley is the way to go though you may want to consider soaking it overnight to aid in the cooking process.
Quinoa, on the other hand, cooks in about 10-15 minutes, regardless of the variety chosen. Varieties of quinoa include white, red, and black. So, if you are in rush, quinoa or pearled barley may be the best option.
Both barley and quinoa have excellent nutritional value, though each has its strengths. Barley is a good source of iron, niacin, and vitamin B6, and supplies an adequate source of magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc. It also easily wins out in fiber content, providing both soluble and insoluble fiber, with one serving providing 8 grams, compared to quinoa’s 3.
Quinoa, though, offers slightly more protein per serving than barley with 6 grams versus 5 grams, respectively. It also gets a lot of praise for its status as a “super grain” or “superfood” due to containing all nine essential amino acids and then some. A serving of quinoa contains the amino acids of isoleucine, leucine, lysine, phenylalanine, tyrosine, cysteine, methionine, threonine, histidine, tryptophan, and valine. This is important because amino acids are the building blocks of protein. In addition to protein, quinoa contains starchy carbohydrates, dietary fiber, phosphorus, magnesium, and iron
Aside from those differences, the two grains are comparable in overall nutrition, and either is a great substitute for rice or potatoes.
While both grains are relatively mild in flavor, barley has a slightly malty character, which explains the flavor of beer, and a mild nutty sweetness. Quinoa is mostly flavorless, taking on the characteristics of whatever it is paired with.
Overall, both quinoa and barley are excellent choices in the grains category. Any preference for one over the other should come down to a personal choice or specific needs. For example, a vegan needing a source of protein may choose quinoa over barley so that she takes advantage of its status as a complete protein. A dad of four making a hearty soup may choose to add substance to the dish with barley. If dietary restrictions allow, it's a good idea to rotate your grains and incorporate a variety into your diet.