Eating barley or foods that contain barley can significantly lower levels of two types of low-density lipotrotein (LDL), the "bad" cholesterol associated with cardiovascular disease.
Researchers at Canada's St. Michael's Hospital found that barley lowered LDL and non-high-density (non-HDL) by seven percent.
The cholesterol-lowering benefit was similar to oats, often touted as a heart-healthy, cholesterol-lowering food.
The study is the first to examine the effects of barley and barley products on both LDL and non-HDL cholesterol in addition to apolipoprotein B, or apoB, a lipoprotein that carries harmful cholesterol through the blood. Measuring non-HDL and apoB provides a more accurate measurement for cardiovascular risk, since they account for the total "bad cholesterol" found in the blood.
"The findings are most important for populations at high risk for cardiovascular disease, such as Type 2 diabetics, who have normal levels of LDL cholesterol, but elevated levels of non-HDL or apo B," said research scientist Dr. Vladimir Vuksan, associate director of the Risk Factor Modification Centre of St. Michael's.
"Barley has a lowering effect on the total bad cholesterol in these high-risk individuals, but can also benefit people without high cholesterol," he said.
High cholesterol and diabetes, which are major risk factors for cardiovascular disease and stroke, are normally treated with medications. However, Dr. Vuksan's research and work focuses on how natural dietary and lifestyle changes can reduce these risk factors.
Barley's ability to lower LDL cholesterol is already recognized by the FDA, but Vuksan's research is the first to show its effects on other harmful lipids.
Barley, like wheat and oats, is a member of the grass family and its history as one of world's first cultivated grains stretches back about 13,000 years. But human consumption has fallen in recent history, dropping 35 percent in the past decade.
Since barley is higher in fiber and has twice the protein and half the calories of oats, it should be considered by people with weight or dietary concerns.
"After looking at the evidence, we can also say that barley is comparably effective as oats in reducing overall risk of cardiovascular disease," said Dr. Vuksan.
The study was published in The European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
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