Can I Eat Barley If I'm Gluten-Free?

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Question: Is barley gluten-free, or does barley contain gluten? Can I eat products that contain barley if I'm gluten-free?

Answer: Barley is one of the three primary gluten-based grains. Therefore, in almost all cases, foods made with barley will contain the gluten protein, and people following a gluten-free diet will need to avoid them.

That being said, you'll need to be especially careful when you try to avoid barley.

Although food labeling laws mandate that food product manufacturers specify when a product contains wheat (the primary gluten grain), they do not require manufacturers to specifically call out barley as an allergen risk on food labels. Therefore, there are food products that contain enough gluten to make you sick, but won't state "barley" on the label. 

The Barley-Based Details

Gluten proteins that cause problems for people with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity are found in the grains wheat, rye and barley, all of which are closely related.

The scientific name for the gluten protein found specifically in barley is hordein. Hordein actually occurs in the seeds of the plant, which we know as the grain.

The vast majority of products that use barley as an ingredient use those grains/seeds, not any other part of the plant (think of the barley pearls you often see in hearty winter soups).

Therefore, almost everything made with barley contains gluten. This includes most beers (made with fermented barley), malted milk, malted candy and other malted products (malt is made from barley grains that are germinated and then dried), barley flour (used sometimes in baking) and barley pearls (frequently found in soups).

There's some controversy over whether barley grass (the young stalks of the plant that haven't yet formed grain kernels) contains gluten, and some vitamin products carry a gluten-free label despite the fact that they include barley grass. However, most experts advise using extreme caution when considering whether to consume these products.

Where Will You Find Barley?

Barley often is used as a sweetener in processed foods—cereals such as corn flakes are a good example of this practice. In addition, numerous candy bars—especially crispy rice varieties—contain barley malt. (This article lists safe and unsafe candies: Gluten-Free Candy.)

Unfortunately, food labeling laws do not require manufacturers to disclose barley or barley-based ingredients such as malt. Therefore, it's possible for manufacturers to "hide" those gluten-containing ingredients under catch-all terms such as "natural flavorings." For example, products that contain "smoke flavoring" often contain barley, since most smoke flavoring uses barley as an ingredient.

Some manufacturers voluntarily disclose barley ingredients by listing them as "natural flavorings (barley malt)" on their labels. My article How To Identify Gluten on Food Labels explains which companies follow this practice, and provides tips on avoiding barley along with wheat and rye in processed food products.

And if you're looking for beer made without barley that you can enjoy on the gluten-free diet, there actually are plenty of decent options out there: Gluten-Free Beer.

Another Barley Issue: 'Gluten-Removed' Beer

When it comes to beer, gluten-free beer manufacturers have made some great strides over the past several years. At the same time, though, some in the gluten-free community really miss the taste of "real" barley-based beer.

This has led to the rise of "gluten-removed" beers, that are made from barley and that then use an enzyme to degrade the gluten protein in the barley. These beers taste like "real" beer but can cause less of a reaction in those with celiac or gluten sensitivity.

Less of a reaction is key here: some people report no problems drinking these gluten-removed barley-based beers, while others get quite sick. You'll need to make your own decision on whether to try them or not.

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