In this world of instant food gratification, there is a rogue movement rising up against King Convenience, and one of the forms it’s taking is a small, unassuming seed. Grains, legumes, and nuts are all actually the seeds of their plants, and the potential for new life is inside of them if they’re allowed to germinate under the right conditions (think: warm and wet). It used to be that this happened accidentally, during a rain shower on a summer day while harvested wheat kernels lay outside awaiting the mill, for example. These days, however, we whisk our wheat, rye, oats, or lentils (to name a few) off to be ground up, dried, or cooked before any of that happens. A growing number of people are channeling their colonial farmer, though, claiming that we lost something great when we stopped eating what are now called “sprouted” grains, seeds, legumes, and nuts. And if you thought cooking dried beans or wild rice takes a long time, now we’re talking about soaking them and letting them sprout for days before we eat them. Why go to all this trouble? Well…
Sprouting generates additional nutrients, including B vitamins, vitamin C, folate, fiber, and essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein). Some of the starch is “eaten up” as well, leaving a higher proportion of protein, vitamins, and minerals. If the seed is allowed to fully sprout a new seedling and grow into a plant, all of that extra nutrition will be used up; but if we stop the process before that plant actually develops, we get to reap those benefits instead. Some preliminary research even suggests that sprouting generates unique nutrients that could reduce the risk of cancer. Many individuals claim that they cannot tolerate certain grains, legumes, nuts, or seeds, but that they experience no issues with their sprouted versions.
Unfortunately, the research is less convincing. Too many of the studies rely on rodent test subjects or small groups of humans lacking diversity. Their methodologies are further suspect, with too many uncontrolled variables clouding the results. These are fine starting points, but we can’t yet draw definitive conclusions from them. Some sources claim that even if sprouting improves the nutritional profile of certain foods, it is unlikely to lead to substantial changes in an individual’s overall health. In fact, they say the risks of foodborne illness far outweigh the potential nutritional rewards. Sprouted foods, you see, are considered pretty high risk. The warm and wet conditions necessary for sprouting are exactly what bacteria (think salmonella, listeria, and E. coli) love. Even in the cleanest environment, the seed itself could be harboring bacteria from its time in the field. There have been more than 30 reported outbreaks linked to raw sprouts in the past 20 years, although most of these relate to actual sprouts and not the sprouted grains and legumes discussed in this article. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says the benefits outweigh the risks for healthy individuals, but the government advises us to avoid them, especially if you’re young, pregnant, or elderly. If nothing else, both agree that sprouted foods should be cooked well before they are eaten.
THE BOTTOM LINE: FIT OR FLOP?
FIT! Every food we eat carries some risk. That’s not an excuse to be reckless, but it’s also not a reason to automatically discredit all sprouting. Products using cooked, sprouted ingredients are both more convenient and less risky than sprinkling raw, homemade sprouted chickpeas over your mid-day Buddha bowl. I often recommend Food for Life (“Ezekiel”) products to clients as a starting point and always caution against buying raw sprouts from stores that don’t seem to sell a lot of them. Once you’re feeling more comfortable, you can consider sprouting your own, but this is something I admittedly have yet to try myself. Oh My Veggies, Nourished Kitchen, and Vegetarian Times all provide tutorials. Buy your ingredients from trusted sources and keep everything super clean to reduce the risk of contamination. If even that has you nervous (I get it!), consider the simple act of soaking your grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds in water before you use them, without leaving them out to sprout. Soaking doesn’t provide the same benefits, but it does improve digestibility because plants are not always the easiest for humans to process. Beans are a great example of this, because soaking breaks down oligosaccharides (a fancy name for carbohydrates responsible for beans’ gassy reputation). Soaking also breaks down phytic acid, a form of phosphorous in plants that blocks the absorption of iron, zinc, and calcium. Will switching to sprouted or soaked foods be the magic bullet that revolutionizes your entire existence? Probably not, but no single thing ever is. It may be a small step toward improved health, but it’s a step nonetheless, and I say let’s take it. Cautiously, anyway.