Mankind has been eating barley and wheat since before agriculture began. Archaeological evidence has shown that early man would gather and use wild ancestors of today’s grains despite a primarily nomadic lifestyle. As soon as we started to settle on the land, we started to cultivate these plants.

But incredibly, outside a few cultures in the historical record, it was not until the 1920s that attention turned from the grain of hordeum vulgare and triticum aestivum to the early, leafy growth of the plant. At this point science discovered that both barley and wheat’s nutritional profiles vary widely during the plant’s lifecycle, and that this, the cotyledon stage, is where nutrient content peaks.

What really brought these foods to public notice is the work of Dr Charles Schnabel. In the early 1930s the Kansas-based agricultural chemist began experiments on ailing hens, feeding them barley and wheat grass. Remarkable recovery rates were observed, with greater and better-quality egg production. Birth defects in chicks were reduced, and Schnabel became convinced that cereal grasses were a key nutritional aid. He made an easy translation from animal to human food, feeding cereal grasses to his own large family. Very positive results were reported and before long, grass-based supplements for humans were available in stores across the American mid-West.

Nowadays, these grasses are both recognised as superfoods, although wheatgrass has had a more stellar media career than barley grass. They are popular in both juice and powder form and are used as supplements in the diets of the health-conscious. There are in fact few differences between wheat and barley grasses, and many consumers choose one or the other according to which one they most like the taste of.

The headline component of both wheat and barley grass is a healthy supply of chlorophyll, the agent of photosynthesis. This is the process by which plants convert solar energy into carbohydrates, the energy with which it employs proteins and fats in order to grow and eventually reproduce itself. Chlorophyll itself is thought to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and wound-healing benefits for humans, although the the scientific community’s limited research into the matter leaves it unconvinced of this. One aspect of chlorophyll currently under study is its potential to undermine cancer-triggering chemicals at a molecular level.

While the debate on chlorophyll’s antioxidant properties is yet to be concluded, both barley and wheat grass are known to contain an impressive arsenal of nutrients. Barley has 18 and wheat 19 of the 22 amino acids, including all eight of the essential acids the body cannot make for itself. This protein power is added to a large store of important vitamins. Both grasses are rich in the antioxidant vitamins A, C and E, plus a wide range of the B vitamins. These are regarded as essential support for the metabolism, necessary for healthy skin and muscle, beneficial to the nervous and auto-immune systems, cell growth, blood chemistry and functional in preventing certain forms of cancer.

Barley and wheatgrass have enormous dietary potential, but then the cotyledon stage is a nutritionally optimal moment to consume them, as in addition to the proteins, vitamins and amino acids which will be needed to take the plant to adulthood and reproduction, a large amount of photosynthetically-produced energy is stored, ready for use. Eating it at this point is the nutritional equivalent to raiding a very full warehouse.

Increasing numbers of people incorporate barley and wheatgrass into their diets, choosing the method that best suits their lifestyles. For those with a little time, space and patience, the grains can be grown to cotyledon stage in a couple of weeks at home. A simple system of planting trays, a sunny windowsill and regular watering can literally reap great rewards in liquidized or juiced grass. For people with busy or erratic lifestyles it is often more convenient to consume barley and wheat grass either as a capsule or a powder added to drinks or smoothies. Whichever route of consumption you choose, Charles Schnabel’s green green grass can be brought to home, and your diet, with minimal effort on your part.