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Barley Malt Syrup: A Healthy Alternative to Sugar?

Barley malt syrup is an unrefined liquid sweetener made from soaked and sprouted barley. It has a strong flavor and a consistency that is similar to molasses and golden syrup. Because of its "malty" flavor and thick, sticky consistency, barley malt syrup is a common substitute for molasses, but it also frequently pops up in whole grain bread recipes. Some people also use barley malt syrup instead of sugar to sweeten things like barbecue sauces, raw desserts, baked beans and cakes.

But how healthy is this versatile liquid sweetener and sugar alternative? In this article, we analyze the nutritional value of barley malt syrup and explore the health benefits and risks associated with consumption of barley malty syrup.

Nutrition Facts for Barley Malt Syrup

Barley malt syrup is mostly carbohydrates, with maltose being the dominant carbohydrate. Maltose, also known as malt sugar, is a disaccharide sugar composed of two glucose units, and it is only about 30 to 50 % as sweet as sucrose (table sugar). In addition to maltose, barley malt syrup also typically contains a good amount of glucose and sucrose, as well as a small amount of fructose. It is not a good source of minerals and vitamins in general, although it does contain a decent amount of potassium. Barley malt syrup also contains a small amount of proteins, including gluten, which is why it is not suitable for those following a strict gluten-free diet.

When doing research on the nutritional value of barley malt syrup, it is important to keep in mind that data can vary from brand to brand and even batch to batch. Some brands provide a detailed nutrition facts chart on the packaging, while others only provide basic information. Eden Organic Barley Malt Syrup, which you can buy on Amazon here, is an example of a product that comes with a fairly detailed nutrition facts label. If you study the label, you will learn that a tablespoon (21 grams) of this syrup contains 60 calories, 16 grams of carbohydrates (of which 8 grams are sugars), 1 gram of protein and 65 milligrams of potassium. You will also learn that it contains neither fat, sodium, fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium nor iron.

Health Concerns and Benefits

Barley Malt Syrup

Barley malt syrup is not the ideal sweetener for blood sugar control

Limited data exists on the glycemic index of barley malt syrup. However, we do know that the main carbohydrate in barley malt syrup is maltose, and that maltose has a very high glycemic index, even higher than sucrose (table sugar). That, in tandem with the fact that barley malt syrup is less sweet than table sugar so you will need to use more of it, means that sweet treats sweetened exclusively with barley malt syrup are likely not going to have a gentle effect on your blood sugar levels.

Barley malt syrup is bad for oral health, just like white sugar

Like all natural carbohydrate-rich alternatives to table sugar, barley malt syrup is bad for your teeth. Certain bacteria on your teeth use the sweet-tasting sugars in barley malt syrup to produce acids that destroy the tooth enamel which protects your teeth. This process is called demineralization, and if the minerals that are lost are not regained fast enough in a process called remineralization, cavities will begin to form. However, the sugars in barley malt syrup, regular white sugar and other similar sweeteners do not work independently from other factors such as oral hygiene. In fact, for most people good oral hygiene is enough to prevent cavities, according to the nutrition book Understanding Nutrition.

Unlike white sugar, barley malt syrup has antioxidant activity

A study published in the January 2009 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association compared the antioxidant capacity of 19 natural sweeteners, including regular white sugar and barley malt syrup, and found significant differences between the tested sweeteners. Blackstrap and dark molasses ranked the highest in terms of antioxidant capacity, followed by date sugar and barley malt syrup. White sugar and light corn syrup were the worst, with virtually no antioxidant activity. The researchers concluded that replacing white sugar in baking and cooking with better alternatives could increase antioxidant consumption similar to replacement of refined grains with whole grains.

Calories add up faster with barley malt syrup than sugar

All sugars – be it sucrose, maltose, fructose or any other sugar – provide 4 calories per gram. This means that every gram of sugar in barley malt syrup provides as many calories as a gram of table sugar which is pure sucrose. However, maltose is less sweet than sucrose, and to achieve a specific level of sweetness, more maltose is needed than sucrose. This means you will get more calories from a dish sweetened with barley malt syrup than an equally sweet dish sweetened with white sugar.

The Bottom Line

Barley malt syrup is not a particularly healthy alternative to white sugar, and the health risks associated with a high consumption of barley malt syrup clearly outweigh its potential health benefits. Therefore, rather than substituting barley malt syrup for white sugar in your sweet recipes, try using natural whole food sweeteners such as fruit purees as a substitute whenever you can. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends in its 2015 guideline on sugar intake that both adults and children reduce their daily intake of free sugars to less than 10% of their total energy intake, or to 5% if they want to reap additional health benefits. This recommendation applies not only to sugars added to foods and drinks by the manufacturer or consumer, but also to sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates. It does not refer to the sugars in fresh whole fruits and vegetables.

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