Wheat grass and barley grass have a lot in common. In fact, they are considered sister plants; both are classified in the grass family Poaceae. They have hollow stems, flat leaves and produce multiple seeds from complex flower heads. Both are cereal crops commonly cultivated for their grains but have also gained popularity as health foods in their young grass forms. They both provide excellent arrays of vitamins and nutrients, reduce inflammation and help to maintain body alkalinity. Since they appear to be so similar, one must wonder if they can be used interchangeably. The differences are subtle, but they do exist.
The first, of course, is the taste. Wheatgrass has a sweet taste, but barley is a bit more bitter. Obviously, this distinction is a matter of, well, taste, but if you don’t care for wheat grass, barley grass confers very similar benefits while maintaining its own unique flavor. In either case, you’re still drinking grass juice.
Barley grass contains beta-sitosterol, a phytosterol which has a similar structure to cholesterol found in the human body. Beta-sitosterol will actually replace some cholesterol during digestion which lowers bad and total cholesterol. It does not, however, raise good cholesterol. Additional scientific research has found that beta-sitosterol may provide symptom relief to those who are having trouble urinating due to an enlarged prostate (benign prostatic hyperplasia). Beta-sitosterol does not, in any way, shrink the prostate, though.
Barley Grass Is Grown Outdoors (Usually), Wheat Grass Is Grown Indoors (Usually)
Most wheat grass is grown indoors and hydroponically. Barley grass tends to be grown outdoors. Now, there are advantages to growing crops indoors. It saves water, money, time and work, but these are all advantages for the farmer, not the consumer.
Growers also have more control over their plants when they are grown indoors which can be an advantage in the hands of a skilled botanist. Hydroponic crops can achieve greater growth rates and yields, yet, this does not necessarily increase the plant’s nutritional value. Furthermore, plants grown indoors are more susceptible to salmonella and pathogens.
Growing plants outdoors does affect their nutritional value. Nutrients from the soil add to the nutritional makeup of the plant. Dietary nitrate, for example, comes from the nitrogen in the soil, and soil with poor nitrogen content yield plants with less dietary nitrate. Hydroponic farmers have to add those nutrients themselves. In most cases, hydroponically grown plants tend to have similar nutritional values, but a 2003 study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that there were fewer carotenoids (like beta-carotene, lutein) in hydroponically grown vegetables. So there is evidence that hydroponic farmers may not be able to completely recreate the nutritional profile of a soil-grown plant.
Finally, and most importantly, plants grown outdoors are grown under some degree of duress. This might seem like a negative, but when plants are exposed to stress, they produce more antioxidants, and those antioxidants are shipped first and foremost to the leaves of the plant.
In fact, a 2004 study (Czech University of Agriculture) on barley leaves specifically reiterates this data, finding that barley plants exposed to cadmium produced significantly more antioxidants to protect themselves. Plants don’t just produce more antioxidants when exposed to transition metals, they also produce antioxidants when exposed to any number of stressors like UV rays, weather, wind, water and what have you. Basically, the plants use the antioxidants to protect itself, and when consumed, those benefits are conferred on the consumer. Hydroponically grown plants are subjected to very little stress and may likely have fewer antioxidant properties because of it.