Are Sprouted Grains Ready for the Limelight?
Chances are you've heard about sprouted grains. Though it may sound like a new trend, sprouted grains have been around for years. Once relegated to the back corner of the community health-food store, sprouted grains are becoming a more mainstream option. If you wrote them off as just another fad, you may want to take a closer look.
Made from whole grains, sprouted grains technically are seeds that germinate and begin to grow under ideal conditions. They generally offer the same or better nutrition benefits compared to regular whole grains. Some of the carbohydrates present in the grain are used as energy to grow the new sprout, leaving a higher concentration of protein and other nutrients. It's believed that the enzymes activated to break down the grain's starchy core yield an easier-to-digest grain and greater nutrient accessibility.
The Nutritional Effects of Sprouting
Depending on the type of grain, the sprouting process may increase vitamin C, folate, soluble fiber and antioxidants, and decrease gluten and insoluble fiber. Due to differences in baseline nutrient content, it's important to note that sprouting does not produce the same effects for every grain.
- Sprouting was shown to enhance the folate concentrations in wheat pita bread as much as four times.
- Compared to whole wheat, sprouted wheat was shown to contain more dietary fiber and alpha-tocopherol – the most bioavailable form of vitamin E – among other compounds.
- Sprouting millet tripled the bioaccessibility of iron and also improved manganese and calcium bioaccessibility.
Those nutrient changes may yield additional health benefits. Preliminary research supporting the health benefits of sprouted grains is compelling. Several small studies reveal a handful of potential nutrition benefits, including higher dietary fiber and antioxidant capacity. While science confirms nutritive changes to the grain, this does not necessarily prove those benefits will be passed on to the person eating them — though there's hope that it will.
A small Japanese study suggests that sprouted brown rice may help control blood sugar and promote better blood lipid profiles. Similarly, a small Canadian study found that sprouted wheat bread had the mildest glycemic response in overweight male subjects when compared to four other kinds of bread, including white, sourdough, 12-grain and 11-grain varieties. Additional areas of research include exploring the effects of sprouted grains on blood pressure and improved digestibility and tolerance.
What Sprouted Grains Taste Like
Sprouted grains add variety, texture and a unique flavor to meals. Because some of the starches are broken down into sugar during the sprouting process, sprouted grains offer a somewhat sweeter taste. Sprouted grains can be eaten whole, such as in a sprouted rice salad, but more often are dried and milled into flour to make cereals, breads, pastas and other dishes.
As long as the germ and bran are intact, any type of whole grain can be sprouted, including amaranth, barley, wheat, farro, millet, quinoa, rice and more. Altered grains that are hulled, husked, pearled or rolled will not sprout.
Grains are soaked, rinsed, drained and kept moist for sprouting. Sprouted grains used in commercial food production are cultivated in a controlled environment to reduce the risk of food poisoning. The warm and humid conditions required to sprout grains are optimal for bacterial growth such as Salmonella, Listeria and E. coli. If these pathogens are present during sprouting, they can grow to unsafe levels. For safety, it's important to fully cook sprouted grains, especially those that will be served to vulnerable populations such as children, pregnant women, the elderly and anyone with a compromised immune system.
A "soak, rinse and drain" method is the most common way for consumers to sprout grains at home. Find seeds in the produce section of the supermarket or health-food store, and choose those that are labeled as suitable for sprouting — not regular garden seeds. Food safety can be a concern with DIY grain sprouting due to the moist environment required for sprouts to form. All equipment used should be sterilized and kept clean. And whether produced at home or bought commercially, it's important to refrigerate raw sprouts and cook them thoroughly before eating to minimize the risk of food poisoning.
By and large, sprouted grains are a new concept to most Americans, but they may be the next big trend in baking and snack foods. According to Mintel data, 19 new sprouted-grain products were introduced in 2014. Although this may seem like a small number, experts project it is only the beginning of the trend. Major cereal makers have jumped aboard and are now producing sprouted-grain cereals. Sprouted-grain breads, crackers and tortillas also are fairly easy to find. Consumers can expect to see more products in mainstream supermarkets, including sprouted-grain versions of pastas, bagels, pretzels and more.
Contributing editor Marisa Moore, MBA, RDN, LD, is a consultant based in Atlanta and teaches nutrition at Georgia State University.