When Mark Sorrells was on a plane two years ago on a way to a meeting, he struck up a casual conversation with a woman seated next to him who asked what he did and where he was from.
The professor of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell University told her about a project he was doing on a little-known grain thousands of years old called naked barley.
"She said, 'Is that barley without clothes?' " Sorrells told Food Dive with a laugh. "I thought that was hilarious because you can imagine someone that is unfamiliar with naked barley would think of naked barley as not having any clothes on."
The single genetic mutation that created naked barley — the grain has 30,000 genes, about the same as a human — likely occurred shortly after domestication about 10,000 years ago. Barley fell out of favor in Europe during the Iron Age (around 500 B.C. to 332 B.C.), following the introduction of bread wheat, according to Bangor University's Naked Barley Project.
Today, barley with an adhering hull is widely used to help in the filtration of beer, the process where solids are removed from the liquid. But researchers who work with the naked barley variety said despite the name that inevitably generates chuckles from people who aren't familiar with it, the grain is packed with attributes that are in high demand with consumers looking to eat healthier.
Most barley sold in stores and found in products such as soup is called pearled barley because the grain grows with the hull attached to the kernel. But this outer coating is removed during processing, making the grain digestible for humans, but stripping out much of the fiber and nutrients. For this reason, it can no longer be called a whole grain.
The naked or hulless barley variety naturally separates the hull from the grain while leaving all the healthy benefits behind, and with it the coveted whole grain label. Naked barley also has a higher protein content than other grains like wheat and is a source of complex carbohydrates, such as beta-glucan — a soluble fiber that has shown to lower cholesterol. The grain can be used in same way in foods as its pearled sibling despite not having a hull.
Individuals who research and sell naked barley said the crop has a host of positive attributes that extend beyond just the health benefits. It's organic and easier on the environment because it requires less water than wheat and uses less fertilizer to grow the crop.
"Many customers want their food to be as unprocessed as possible, so they’re looking for hulless barley since it’s considered to be a true 'whole grain,'" Laurel Hansen, digital content and inventory manager at Pleasant Hill Grain in Nebraska, said in an email to Food Dive.
Naked barley's limited use means it's not widely grown in the United States, making it hard to estimate how much is being raised on farms. Sorrells estimated fewer than 20,000 or 30,000 acres are grown domestically. That pales in comparison to 2.4 million acres of barley and 37.7 million acres of wheat forecast to be harvested during their current marketing year, according to data from the USDA.
Researchers have developed newer varieties of naked barley at Oregon State University and tested by Sorrells at Cornell that were given their own distinctly risque-themed names such as “Streaker” and “Buck.” Unlike earlier versions of naked barley, newer types are higher yielding and more adapted to intensive production.
Patrick Hayes, a professor of crop and soil sciences at Oregon State University, and other individuals who conduct research on naked barley said more work needs to be done to publicly promote the attributes of the crop. They acknowledge it's most likely going to be a gradual climb for the grain to become a mainstream offering. Most of the funding now that goes toward research on naked barley comes from grants provided by the USDA.
"When you get a couple of barley breeders together who have an interest in naked barley, that question immediately comes up, and they say why is there all this awareness about every other possible cereal and pseudo-cereal but not about barley," Hayes said. "There have even been semi-serious discussions about changing the name.”
Sorrells expressed confidence that if more time and money was spent doling out samples and informing the public about the benefits of naked barley that it would grow in popularity. He pointed to a booth at the Union Square Farmers’ Market in New York City that sells out of the grain given to it by Cornell "as fast as we can produce it." Naked barley also is popular among restaurants in the Big Apple and dining events at the university when it's offered on their menus, he added.
"It's quite popular for the people that have tried it," Sorrells said. "The more [other people] learn about it, the more they will be interested in actually looking for it in stores and supermarkets."
James Henderson, senior farm liaison at Hummingbird Wholesale in Oregon, told Food Dive he has been offering naked barley for six years — eventually selling his first bag in August 2015. Last month, he sold 32 bags weighing a total of 800 pounds, a meaningful increase but still minor compared to the volume of other commodities Hummingbird sells such as oats, quinoa, popcorn and rice.
"It needs some more marketing attention from us and I think it would take off even more," Henderson said. "But we just have a lot of things on our plate."