Historically, many of our grains sprouted accidentally, a happenstance that modern techniques have largely eradicated. Now, however, we're learning that we may be missing out by turning our back on sprouting; new techniques of controlled sprouting give us the best of the past, for better health.
Grains are the seeds of certain plants, largely cereal grasses. Like
all seeds, grain kernels are a marvel of nature, containing the
potential of a whole new plant, patiently waiting its turn in the sun.
All three edible parts of the whole grain – the germ, endosperm, and bran – are crucial to creating the new plant. The germ is the plant embryo, which, when it grows, will feed on the starchy endosperm. The bran layers provide some additional nutrients and — along with the inedible husk found on many grains – help protect the grain seed until it’s ready to start the growth cycle.
Until then, the seed counts on certain built-in growth inhibitors to keep it from germinating until temperature and moisture conditions are just right. Then, once sprouting starts, enzyme activity wipes out these growth inhibitors and transforms the long-term-storage starch of the endosperm to simpler molecules that are easily digested by the growing plant embryo.
Just as the baby plant finds these enzyme-activated simple molecules easier to digest, so too may some people. Proponents of sprouted grains claim that grains that have just begun sprouting – those that are straddling the line between a seed and a new plant, as shown here — offer all the goodness of whole grains, while being more readily digested.
What’s more, the sprouting process apparently increases the amount and bio-availability of some vitamins (notably Vitamin C) and minerals, making sprouted grains a potential nutrition powerhouse.
Until about a hundred years ago, humans harvested their grains, tied
them into sheaves, and left them in the field until they were ready to
thresh the grain. Inevitably, with this exposure to the weather, at
least some of the grain would begin to sprout.
While a little sprouting appears to be good for us, there’s a sweet spot. Just the right amount of time, temperature, and moisture are necessary to start the germination process. Too much moisture, and the grain drowns, with the seed splitting open not from the force of an emerging, vibrant seedling but instead, simply from waterlogged swelling. Or, the sprout may begin to emerge but then, if the moisture source is not removed, it can begin to ferment or even to rot. Time is important too: if a healthy sprout continues to grow indefinitely, it becomes a new grass stalk, losing its digestibility, since humans can’t properly digest grasses.
Fortunately, companies marketing sprouted grains today don’t simply leave their grains randomly in the field. They sprout their grains under carefully-controlled conditions, with just the right amount of moisture and warmth, until the important enzymatic processes are at their peak, and then they use the sprouted grains to make products.
Sprouting grains increases many of the grains' key nutrients, including B vitamins, vitamin C, folate, fiber, and essential amino acids often lacking in grains, such as lysine. Sprouted grains may also be less allergenic to those with grain protein sensitivities.
Excerpts from some recent studies regarding sprouted grains (wheat in particular):
Nutrient Changes Noted in Sprouted Wheat
sprouted wheat kernels for up to 168 hours (1 week), analyzing them at
different stages to learn the effects of germination on different
nutrient levels. While different times and temperatures produced
different effects, overall the sprouting process decreased gluten
proteins substantially, while increasing folate. Longer germination
times led to a substantial increase of total dietary fiber, with soluble
fiber tripling and insoluble fiber decreasing by 50%.
Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, June 13, 2007; 55(12):4678-83. Epub 2007 May 12.
Optimum Germination Conditions for Wheat
Scientists at the
University of Alberta germinated wheat under various conditions to
determine how to maximize the production of antioxidants. First, they
steeped the grains in water for 24 or 48 hours, then sprouted them in
the dark for 9 days. Vitamins C and E and beta-carotene, which were
barely detectable in the dry grains, increased steadiily during the
germination period. Grains steeped for 48 hours became wet, sticky,
discolored and acidic-smelling after germination, leading researchers to
conclude that 24 hours of steeping and 7 days of sprouting would
produce the best combination of antioxidant concentrations and sensory
International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, July 2001; 52(4):319-30.
There are three main ways to enjoy sprouted grains: You can buy
packaged sprouted grains, cook sprouted grains as side dishes, or bake
with sprouted grain flours. Of course, the fourth way is perhaps the simplest (and most economical), sprout them yourself! This is easy to do and there are many ways to use the sprouted grain - - including enjoying the plain sprouted seeds as a snack, to nibble on while browsing the internet, sprinkling over salads, tossing into a veggie stir-fry, garnishing casseroles, chopping to add to meat loaf, burgers, dried for crunchy snacks or as I do, make wonderful, tasty whole wheat breads with them!
According to America's leading bread expert (and WGC culinary advisor) Peter Reinhart:
"Sprouted wheat flour [from dry milling] really makes a fabulous loaf. Baking with it is easier than I expected. The dough performs beautifully, creating a really nice structure, and results in a flavor that's sweeter, less harsh, then regular whole wheat flour. I've also made bread using milled wet sprouts, and that's delicious too, but totally different.
The next step is to determine how much of the nutritional advantage lasts through the baking process. The whole process needs to be vetted through the proper protocols and research. I'm guessing there will be better digestive news, but even if the nutrition proves to come out the same as regular whole grain bread, bread made with sprouted flour still tastes better!
Every time we think we've hit the final frontier, we discover new options for bread!"