By Holly Luka, CAHNRS marketing and news intern
WSU researcher works to expand barley market
Because barley has a relatively high soluble fiber content, it can lower blood-cholesterol and blood-glucose levels. Barley is also high in vitamin E derivatives.
A WSU scientist hopes to expand the barley market by developing new varieties that can be used better as food. Steve Ullrich
, professor of crop and soil sciences, is using cross-breeding to develop varieties that will make barley more attractive and valuable to farmers, processors and consumers.
“Barley is very nutritious; it just hasn’t been appreciated as a significant food source,” Ullrich said.
In 2006, the FDA put out a health food benefit endorsement for barley. Because barley has a relatively high soluble fiber content, it can lower blood-cholesterol and blood-glucose levels. Barley is also high in vitamin E derivatives.
“This endorsement has given more attention to barley,” Ullrich said. “We now see it in more breakfast cereals because it can be incorporated in many ways.”
Developing new varieties
Ullrich is taking several genetic approaches to creating food-grade barley varieties. In addition, he’s working to improve feed-grade barley to make it more environmentally friendly.
One approach is to develop a hulless variety. The hull that covers barley is originally part of the flower. It can be mechanically removed, but that takes a lot of work. The hulless gene genetically impairs the cement that holds the hull on, so it comes off easily when the barley is threshed.
Another approach is to increase the content of beta-glucan, the major soluble fiber component of barley. The waxy gene in barley influences the kind of starch the grain makes, and it indirectly increases the beta-glucan content; this can help lower blood-cholesterol and blood-sugar levels.
Ullrich also is working to reduce barley’s proanthocyanidin content. Proanthocyanidin is a natural compound found throughout the plant world. In proanthocyanidin-free barley, the kernels, flour and resulting products are brighter white. This increases product appeal without affecting nutritional quality.
The absence of proanthocyanidin also improves the quality of beer because proanthocyanidin mixes with protein to make beer hazy when chilled.
Lowering barley’s phytic acid content is another trait Ullrich is working on, one that is important for barley used as livestock feed. Phytic acid stores phosphorus, a pollutant. Since phytate is indigestible, it travels through the animal and is excreted as a pollutant, especially in water. By lowering the phytic acid in barley, the phosphorus can be digested by the animal, thus reducing pollution.
“We have lines in test that have three of the four traits,” Ullrich said. “We already have a couple waxy, hulless lines that could be ready for variety release next year.”
It’s difficult to create hulless barley that yields as well as hulled varieties. Ullrich said demand for hulless barley would probably require a premium over the price of feed barley, such as occurs for malting barley, in order to induce farmers to raise it.
Ullrich is hopeful that food-grade barley will expand the agricultural market.
“Barley already has a place in the agricultural production systems,” he said.
Barley is well adapted to the Pacific Northwest. Washington is No. 4 in the nation in barley production, after North Dakota, Idaho and Montana.
“Barley works well in crop rotations with winter wheat, as well as peas and lentils, so new high-value varieties should fit right in to existing rotations,” Ullrich said.