Sprouted Whole Grains
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.
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What is a Sprouted Grain?
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.
There is at this time no regulated definition of 'sprouted grain.' Consumers who want to understand what they are eating, and companies who are considering manufacturing or marketing sprouted grains may find it useful to review and compare existing industry definitions. Click here to see how AACCI and various manufacturers define sprouted grains.
Controlled Sprouting for Maximum Benefits
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.
Dry or Wet?
Companies making sprouted grain products currently use two different approaches – dry and wet – once the grains are sprouted.
The Dry Approach. Some companies sprout the grain then dry it , to lock in this ideal stage. At this point, the sprouted grain can be stored until it’s cooked as a side dish, or it can be milled into sprouted grain flour, which is in turn used to make a wide variety of products.
The Wet Approach. Alternately, other companies mash the wet, sprouted grains into a thick purée which is used to make breads, tortillas, muffins and other products. These products are often described as “flourless” and are frequently sold frozen.
Health Benefits of Sprouted Whole Grains
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.
The pace of research is quickening, with studies documenting a wide range of health benefits for different sprouted grains. Here are just a few:
Sprouted brown rice fights diabetes.
Sprouted buckwheat protects against fatty liver disease.
Cardiovascular risk reduced by sprouted brown rice.
Sprouted brown rice decreases depression and fatigue in nursing mothers.
Decreased blood pressure linked to sprouted barley.
Click here to see details of recent studies on the health benefits of sprouted whole grains.
Cooking and Enjoying Sprouted Grains
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.
Here are just a few great recipes you can try:
Home bakers may also enjoy trying their favorite recipes using sprouted wheat flour (see bread recipe above). According to America's leading bread expert (and WGC culinary advisor) Peter Reinhart (pictured below):
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!
We rarely name specific retail brands in the editorial side of this website, but because sprouted grains are so new and may not be available yet in your store, we're listing some retail product sources here, so that you can see what an interesting array of products are starting to sprout up (pardon the pun!)
Photo Credits this page: Sprouted Grain closeup – Food for Life; Germination Equipment – Sun Valley Rice; Peter Reinhart – Peter Reinhart.