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Barley has fallen out of favor as horse feed, but beer brewers still need it. (Getty Images)

Still Waiting For That Healthy Oats And Barley Revival

by Dan Charles
Oct 6, 2011

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Dan Charles

A press release that landed on my desk recently got me thinking about what American agriculture used to look like. There was a time, seventy or so years ago, when oats and barley covered large swaths of Midwestern farmland — 50 million acres in all. Those grains, high in oil and fiber, were grown to feed the millions of horses that powered American farms.

Then when the tractor arrived, workhorses disappeared, and oats and barley almost went out the same exit. The number of acres devoted to these humble "small grains" is down at least 90 percent from its peak in the 1940s. Oats have been hardest hit, despite aggressive marketing campaigns in recent years by oatmeal makers.

Barley still hangs on, thanks to breweries. "Barley can always go into beer. And people don't want to give up their beer," says Jennifer Mitchell Fetch, a researcher with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

But back to that press release: It announces that some Italian researchers have perfected pasta that's made from, yes, barley. If the pasta arrives in stores, it will carry a label saying that it "may reduce the risk of heart disease."

Apparently, America's farm horses were enjoying a very healthy diet way back then. Oats and barley are excellent sources of various substances, including soluble fiber, that scientists have linked to lowered cholesterol and lower risk of heart disease.

In fact, the FDA started allowing food manufacturers to advertise such claims for oat- and barley-containing foods several years ago. And some farmers, especially in Canada, where they grow more oats and barley than in the U.S., thought that the old-time crops might be coming back, thanks to the legal green light. Food researchers experimented with barley-containing tortillas, crepes, pancakes, and noodles.

But the demand they were expecting hasn't happened. The latest figures, in Canada and well as the U.S., show that farmers will harvest a record-low amount of these healthy crops this year.

"I've been working on barley for ten or twelve years, and I don't know why it's not in the stores," laments Nancy Ames, from the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals, at the University of Manitoba.

Apparently, we still like our meat and potatoes better.

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