Are Sprouted Grains Really Better for You?
Products made with sprouted grains are a hot new trend. What can sprouted grains do for you that regular grains can't? Nutrition Diva takes a closer look.
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Once upon a time, not so very long ago, grains such as wheat and oats were viewed as a cornerstone of a healthy, wholesome diet. These days, grains are more often portrayed as villains, with books like Wheat Belly and Grain Brain arguing that grains are to blame for everything from obesity to ADHD to crabgrass.
See also: Are Grains to Blame?
OK, maybe not crabgrass. But going grain-free is definitely one of the hottest dietary trends of the decade. At the same time, sprouted grains are one of the hottest trends in food manufacturing, appearing in everything from bread to pasta to breakfast cereals to pretzels.
Some people seem to think that sprouting a grain transforms it from a horrible food into a healthy one. At best, I’d say it’s a way to transform a somewhat nutritious food into a slightly more nutritious one. At worst, it may just be a way of putting a health halo on a food that has gotten a bad reputation.
Those of you who are long-term listeners (or who started by downloading the entire archive of past shows) may recall me talking about the nutritional benefits of sprouted grains once before, way back in 2008. Since then, a lot of new research has been published so I thought it would be a good time to revisit the subject.
Are Sprouted Grains More Nutritious?
Whether you are sprouting a kernel of wheat or growing a tomato plant, getting the seed to sprout profoundly changes its chemical composition. In the presence of moisture and warmth, enzymes spring into action, breaking starches down into sugars, reconfiguring proteins into different proteins, producing vitamins and changing the chemical structure of minerals.
As a result, sprouted grains may be lower in gluten, higher in folate, and contain more bioavailable minerals than they did in their unsprouted state. The beneficial effect that sprouting has on mineral availability is primarily due to the reduction of phytic acid, a compound that can bind to minerals and make them hard to absorb. However, other ways of processing, including milling or heat treatment (aka baking) also reduces phytic acid.
See also: The Other Side of Phytates
Sprouting also affects the fiber in grains but in ways that are a little hard to predict. Some grains experience an initial decrease during the first couple of days of sprouting but if you let them keep growing for a few more days, the total fiber content can increase. Sprouting can also turn some of the soluble fiber into insoluble fiber. Although this is interesting—and demonstrates just how dynamic the sprouting process is—it doesn’t really make that big a difference in the amount of fiber you get per serving.
Are Products Made with Sprouted Grains Better for You?
When I look at the nutritional content of commercial products made from sprouted grains, I still don’t see a clear nutritional advantage. When I compare Pepperidge Farm 100% whole wheat bread to Ezekiel Sprouted Grain bread, for example, they both have exactly the same amount of calories, protein, carbohydrates, fiber, and iron.
If you’re sprouting your grains at home, you might reap a little more of that enhanced nutrition, especially if you eat your sprouts fresh in salads or lightly steamed or sauteed instead of drying them, grinding them up, and baking them into a loaf of bread. Sprouted grains have an interesting chewy texture and are less starchy and a little sweeter tasting than unsprouted grains. The flavor will vary (a lot) from grain to grain but sprouted grains can add a lot of interest to your culinary adventures.
See also: Getting Started with Sprouting
Just one caveat here: the warm, humid conditions needed to sprout those grains are also the ideal conditions for bacteria to grow. Although they are nutritious and delicious, fresh sprouts are unfortunately also a frequent source of food poisoning. You need to keep your sprouting equipment scrupulously clean and handle sprouts with care.
See also: How to Kill E. coli on Vegetables
Even so, the only way to guarantee that sprouts are free of bacteria is to cook them before eating them, which isn’t always desirable. Just to put the risks of eating raw sprouts in perspective, you take the same risk whenever you eat a soft cooked egg, a medium rare burger, or raw shellfish. Those with compromised immune systems should probably play it safe. The rest of us may feel comfortable taking that risk.