Is Beta Glucan part of your dietary intake? If the answer is yes then which one – Beta 1-3, 1-4 Glucan or Beta 1-3, 1-6 Glucan? Confused already – you may well be, and not have heard the word Beta Glucan before or the various potential health benefits of the nutrient.

You could, for example, be happily eating your porridge each day unaware of the cholesterol lowering properties of this dish which are thanks to its Beta Glucan content.

There are two common types of Beta Glucan to be found in our diets and the version Beta 1-3, 1-6 Glucan is only found in a small number of foods, primarily types of mushrooms such as oyster and shiitake mushrooms and also baker’s yeast. As the nutrient is only found in a limited number of food items and then at low levels it has become increasingly popular to take Beta Glucan in a supplement form with potential to support the immune system.

The other form of Beta Glucan that may comprise part of your diet is mainly found in oats and barley (such as bran and breakfast cereals) and is termed Beta 1-3, 1-4 Glucan. This nutrient is a soluble fibre and when taken regularly in doses of 3 grams or more it helps lower cholesterol primarily because it prevents the re-absorption of the cholesterol and also as it encourages the liver to dump bile.

Beta 1-3, 1-4 Glucan has a very different structure to 1-3, 1-6 and it is important to note that this form has the cholesterol lowering properties and not Beta 1-3, 1-6 Glucan. Similarly Beta 1-3, 1-6 Glucan has immune support properties but 1-3, 1-4 doesn’t comprise this attribute.

So the two nutrients sound very similar but have very different properties and health attributes. The numbers denote the structure and linkages. Beta 1-3, 1-6 Glucan is an insoluble fibre but is only needed to be used in small quantities for immune priming, whilst Beta 1-3, 1-4 Glucan is a soluble fibre and needed to be taken in larger quantities (as part of a food source) to help lower cholesterol.

Beta 1-3, 1-6 Glucan

Research into the properties of Beta 1-3, 1-6 Glucan really took off from the 1940’s onward. The focus of most of the research was into the potential for the nutrient to boost the human immune system. This has been described as a ‘priming’ action to help ward off viruses such as cold and flu bugs.

Most Beta 1-3, 1-6 Glucan supplements are derived from the cell wall of baker’s yeast. Such supplements from a reputable supplier will be of a purified extraction and will not contain enough yeast protein to cause any allergic reactions (e.g. in those with yeast sensitivities). They normally come in a powder form in capsules or as part of a wider multi-formulation.

As mentioned earlier the action of Beta 1-3, 1-6 Glucan is often described as one of ‘priming’ the immune system; priming it so it may help fend off unwanted pathogens / bacteria / viruses.

Flu viruses, as an example, “bind complement” which means they stop the part of the immune system that responds to fight viruses (called “complement”) from working. Beta 1-3, 1-6 Glucan actively seeks to inhibit this binding effect and so potentially support the activation of the immune system in response to the viral invader.

Infection from viruses take about 48 hours after the virus has entered the body. If the immune system is activated it will prevent the virus from replicating so effectively the flu symptoms will not start.

By introducing an ‘immuno-primer’ compound, effectively a friendly bacterium, the immune system receptors are stimulated thus promoting a healthy immune system with greater ability to fight pathogens. 1-3, 1-6 Beta Glucan present in the cell walls of moulds and yeast has been identified as an ideal immuno-primer compound.

In fact, recent work at the Universities of Louisville, Brown and Berlin and at the Mayo Clinics’ has shown that constant stimulation of these receptors is actually necessary to keep the innate immune cells in a fully functional mode. The research also identified that the Beta Glucan in moulds and yeasts is the most effective of all the immuno-primers (acting via the CR3 receptor which occurs on all innate immune cells).

Beta 1-3, 1-4 Glucan (Oats Beta Glucan)

Many examples of Beta 1-3, 1-4 Glucan are found in oat and barley breakfast cereals, bran and porridge; however you can incorporate the nutrient into your diet in many ways including baked items and smoothies.

This form of the nutrient has the permitted health claim “The Maintenance of normal blood cholesterol concentrations” from EFSA (The European Food Safety Authority) who regulate claims for foods and supplements. The fuller wording is important as it includes “Regular consumption of beta-glucans contributes to maintenance of normal blood cholesterol concentrations”.

Importantly, as with all permitted EFSA claims, it is based on ingesting a certain quantity of the nutrient and in this case it is “3g/day of beta-glucans from oats, oat bran, barley or barley bran, or mixtures of non-processed or minimally processed beta-glucans”. So for example with porridge a typical serving will be so many grams in weight of which a percentage is soluble fibre and of this a percentage will be Beta Glucan.

So you need to eat a reasonable quantity of an appropriate food to ingest the suitable amount of Beta Glucan. You will find this information generally on the packaging or website of the manufacturer. As with all food types the less refined a food is the better it is likely to be for you; hence the EFSA wording “non-processed or minimally processed”.

If you are going to use oats with the minimal of processing to cook with, such as porridge, flapjacks etc then that’s great. However for more processed foods such as many cereals and refined porridges do check that the saturated fat content plus the salt and sugar content are not too high.

Soluble fibre is found in a range of grains (especially barley and oats), as well as in fruits, vegetables and pulses. Suitable levels of soluble fibre can be beneficial for the health of the heart and also help to control blood sugar levels (by slowing down sugar absorption from foods).

Oats contain a form of soluble fibre (called oat beta-glucan) which is concentrated in the outer layers of the grain. Indeed much of the research into the cholesterol lowering effects of soluble fibre has centered around oat beta glucan (Beta 1-3, 1-4 Glucan).  In this example the oat beta glucan dissolves in the digestive tract where it effectively forms a thick paste (or gel). This paste helps to bind excess cholesterol substances and help prevent their absorption. This is subsequently excreted by the body.

Dosage and Supplementation

Beta 1-3, 1-6 Glucan is used in doses of between 250mg – 750mg which lends itself to easy supplemental administration; this is typically in a powder/ capsule form.

Beta 1-3, 1-4 Glucan is not effective unless used in larger doses (3 grams upward) and hence is usually ingested from foods rather than supplemental sources. Fortunately as Beta 1-3, 1-4 Glucan occurs in foods that are beneficial to health it is best ingested from foods as part of a healthful diet. Remember only a proportion of a suitable food source is actually Beta 1-3, 1-4 Glucan; so for example a 100 gram portion of porridge may contain around 3 grams of the Beta Glucan.

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