Sprouted grains are everywhere these days, from recipes on nutrition blogs to store-bought foods like breads and crackers. But what are they, exactly, and are they healthier?
What are sprouted grains?
The first thing to recognize is that grains are seeds. All whole grains — such as wheat, barley, corn, oats, and rice — can germinate given the right conditions. Sprouted grains are seeds that have been triggered to germinate and are eaten before they develop into full-grown plants.
How are grains sprouted?
Sprouting typically begins with soaking the seeds to increase the water content and break the seed's outer shell. (At this stage you have soaked grains, which some people also eat.) The seeds are then drained, rinsed, and kept moist to encourage the growth of the sprout, which looks like a little tail. During this process, the seed's starch breaks down and turns into fuel for growth, releasing nutrients like proteins, vitamins, and minerals.
Sprouting has been practiced for centuries. In the beginning, it likely happened by accident due to storage conditions for grains. Over time, people started to deliberately sprout grains for nutritional and culinary reasons. Sprouted grains are often eaten raw, lightly cooked, or milled into flour.
If you're buying sprouted grains or sprouted grain products at the store, be aware that there is no regulated definition of "sprouted grain." You may wish to research a company's practices on your own or check for company responses to the Whole Grains Council.
Soaking and sprouting deactivates phytic acid, a compound that prevents minerals like calcium and iron from being absorbed in the digestive tract. Thus, sprouting can make it easier for the body to absorb nutrients. Sprouting also increases the grain's amino acids, B vitamins, and vitamin C content. In addition, some people report that sprouted grains are easier for them to digest.
To learn more about the nutritional aspect of sprouted grains, I turned to licensed nutritionist and professionally-trained chef Monica Reinagel, Nutrition Diva at QuickAndDirtyTips.com and creator of the Nutrition Diva podcast.
"Sprouting definitely changes the chemical composition of the grain. The question is, does that really make a difference for our own nutrition? The differences are pretty subtle," says Reinagel. "Sprouting makes minerals like calcium and iron more absorbable. However, mineral deficiency due to phytic acid is not really a first world problem. The only documented cases are in third world countries where their entire diet consists of one grain." Furthermore, research suggests that phytic acid may actually have health benefits.
Reinagel advises that to take advantage of any nutritional benefits from sprouting, one should eat sprouted grains raw or minimally cooked. "Every step of processing does away with a bit of the nutrition," she says. "With a quick sauté, there are minor losses. Boiling leads to greater losses. If you dry, mill, and bake the grain, you lose a lot of the nutrient advantages and there's not a significant difference from any whole-grain bread."
Are sprouted grains gluten-free?
Although sprouting reduces some of the gluten in grains like wheat, barley, and rye, they do not make them gluten-free.
Even if baking them negates the nutritional boost, sprouted grains can still be interesting from a culinary standpoint. "If you sprout grains and then use them chopped up or milled into bread, it changes the texture and makes it chewier and grainier, which many people enjoy," says Reinagel.
Raw sprouted grains can provide texture and crunch to salads and light sautés. "You can't really chew up a dry kernel of wheat, but sprouting allows you to enjoy grains in a minimally processed way," says Reinagel. "You've managed to take a grain and turn it into a grain-slash-vegetable, which is a neat trick."