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Photo of Stefania Grando, ICARDA barley breeder

In the days of the Roman Empire, gladiators were known for their strength, courage and stamina and were named hordearii or "barley-men" after the principal component of their training diet. Barley was one of the earliest crops to be domesticated, and for eons was the energy food of the masses.

Today, barley"s main western uses are for stockfeed or malting, but some researchers say it is ready for a comeback as human food, especially in the health and "functional food" markets. Human consumption in Europe is already increasing and barley"s health attributes, especially in lowering cholesterol, could generate a popularity boost.

Because of this, one of the world"s leading barley researchers, Dr Stefania Grando from the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), is urging more research into barley"s place in human nutrition.

[Photo (left) by Rebecca Thyer: Stefania Grando, ICARDA barley breeder at the Barley Technical Symposium]

"At present very little barley is used as human food in developed countries, although there is some interest in barley as a health food and as a source of soluble fibre for reducing cholesterol and for controlling hypoglycaemia in non-insulin dependent diabetes," she says.

Dr Grando says food barley makes up less than five per cent of total production, but this may change as more of the cereal"s health benefits are uncovered.

Barley contains both beta-glucan, which can lower cholesterol levels and control hypoglycaemia, and tocols (tocopherols and tocotrienols), which can lower the low-density lipoprotein cholesterol.

European food barley consumption, which dropped to a low of 0.9 kilograms per person per year in 1991, has climbed back to its 1961 level of 1.6kg/person/year.

Dr Grando says there is potential to keep this moving if science kicks in: "International and national agricultural research has almost completely neglected the improvement of food barley, particularly the quality aspects. Attributes such as kernel weight, size and colour and protein content are often recorded routinely in breeding programs, but many more characteristics are associated with the use of barley as human food.

"More information is needed on consumer preferences," she says. "More applied and basic research needs to be conducted on the quality traits required for different products under different processing conditions."

A barley project being run by ICARDA aims to improve the adaptation and quality of food barley, based mainly on hull-less germplasm, screened for beta-glucan content, kernel hardness, husk percentage and cooking time.

Dr Grando says it is important to keep track of accumulated local knowledge on food barley"s preparation, health, and nutrition attributes. "Food barley cultivars have particular characteristics appreciated by consumers that make them irreplaceable by feed or malting barley.

"This local knowledge (in countries where barley has remained a human food) and the genetic material, needs to be preserved for future generations."

Barley is used for traditional preparations as:

In the developed world, whole barley grain can be processed to produce blocked, pot and pearled barley, barley flakes and flour.

While barley products are suitable for use in many food preparations, the majority of uses are confined to pot or pearled barley in soup and to flakes in breakfast cereals. Roasted barley is used as a coffee substitute, with barley "coffee" very popular in Europe. In Italy, known as Caffe d"orzo, it is commonly used as a breakfast drink for children, often mixed with milk.