Our Grain Guide primarily centers on wheat, the most common food grain grown in the United States and the most popular for breads, pasta, and pastries. But wheat is one among a diversity of grains, each with a unique flavor, a best use, and rich cultural history. Below, you will find excerpts from our conversations with expert chefs about their experiences and formulas for creating delicious meals, baked goods, and side dishes using some of these grains.
Armando Medinaceli, Indigenous education director at NĀTIFS (North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems), speaks about quinoa, corn, and amaranth in the context of their importance to Indigenous people in other parts of the world. He goes on to explain the difference between the imposition of wheat on colonized Indigenous populations, and the voluntary inclusion of wheat into traditional foods like empanadas. Armando Medinaceli Interview
Sprouted wheat is an increasingly familiar addition to whole-grain breads. Sprouting, or germination, refers to how grain kernels, when exposed to water, form a short sprout originating in the germ. The USDA defines sprouted whole grains as kernels with a sprout no longer than the kernel’s length and containing the original bran, germ, and endosperm. The sprouted grain can be cooked and consumed as an intact grain, or it can be dehydrated and ground into whole-grain flour. Sprouting grains can be an excellent way to improve acceptance of whole grains among some consumers because they tend to have a milder flavor and less texture, resembling refined flour.
History and appeal
Sprouted grains have been around for centuries, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. When farmers stored their grains, sometimes they were exposed to water, resulting in the formation of tiny sprouts.1 Sprouts are said to have been prescribed by ancient Chinese physicians and used by 16th-century pirates to prevent scurvy.2
The technique has recently enjoyed renewed interest due to consumer demands for minimally processed and additive-free foods.3 Indeed, data from 2006 to 2016 show a steady increase in the market and production of sprouted grain products.4 Pagand and colleagues (2017) summarize the phenomenon: “Sprouted grains are very much in line with what today’s consumers are looking for, i.e., ingredients perceived as natural, nutritious, and healthy.” Sprouted grains are also becoming more popular with chefs and bakers, as they lend an earthy and nutty flavor, have unique baking properties, and require a shorter cooking time.5
The science of sprouting and its impact on nutrition
Before sprouting, the kernel is dormant, but once exposed to water and the right environmental conditions, it can start to “wake up.”6 Over time, metabolic processes re-ignite, and the seed begins to sprout.7 During seedling development, enzymatic activity in the kernel breaks down starch into smaller sugars (hence, its sweet taste), which may improve digestion.8 Enzymes also break some proteins down into amino acids while others synthesize synthesized.9 An increase in antioxidants, including beta-carotene, vitamin C, and tocopherols, occurs, heightening the nutritional benefit.10 However, the nutrition gained from germination depends on germination time and type of grain.
Phytate, the storage form of phosphorous in many plants, inhibits the absorption of important minerals including zinc, iron, calcium, magnesium, manganese, and copper in the human body.11 Since we do not have sufficient enzymes to break down phytate in our own bodies, it poses a significant threat to micronutrient status, especially in communities that rely on grains for much of their nutrition.12 Adding to this issue is the fact that phytates are most heavily concentrated in the bran of the grain, the consumption of which we highly encourage due to its other nutritional benefits.13 Fortunately, soaking and sprouting activates phytases, enzymes that break down these problematic phytates, so this is an excellent way to decrease phytate levels and increase the availability of minerals to the human body.14
Another notable change that occurs during germination is the synthesis of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain and has been found to have an antihypertensive and diuretic effect.15 The marked increase of GABA in germinated grains has been documented most extensively in brown rice. Sprouted brown rice has been associated with antihypertensive, antihyperlipidemic, and chemoprotective properties.16 GABA, in combination with other compounds such as fiber, gamma-oryzanol, and antioxidants, is proposed to be responsible for these health benefits, but more research is needed.17
The chemical changes that occur during germination have optimistic promise for human health, but there is still a need for further scientific research to conclude that these benefits are fully reaped by the human body.18 Multiple authors have called into question whether or not the “health halo” attached to sprouted grains has been rightfully earned. Since research on sprouted grains has been conducted on different types of grains in varying conditions, it is very difficult to compare across studies, and research on digestion is limited because it has been conducted either in vitro or among rats.19 Given that phytate is widely recognized to impair mineral absorption in humans, it is probable that germination results in improved mineral absorption, but there is still a need for clinical trials in humans to confirm this.20 Recent research has also demonstrated that phytate may have chemoprotective and antioxidant properties, so it is possible that deciding not to sprout grains could have its own health benefit.21
Clearly, the nutrition science behind grain sprouting is quite complicated, and there is still much more to learn. At the very least, sprouting does not cause harm when done in a controlled environment and some people seem to have an easier time digesting them. Minerals may become more available and antioxidants more abundant.
Baking with sprouted whole wheat flour
Due to the increased enzymatic activity brought about by sprouting, bakers need to make some adaptations when using sprouted flour. Chef Peter Reinhart explains the advantages of baking with whole wheat sprouted flour at the 2014 Whole Grains Breaking Barriers Conference presented by the Whole Grains Council and Oldways (click here for his full instructive video). He says that, unlike other whole wheat flour, sprouted whole wheat flour lends a lightness without the bitterness commonly associated with whole grains. Reinhart explains that sprouted wheat dough requires shorter fermentation time because sprouting has already kickstarted that process. He also bakes his sprouted grain bread with a high hydration, 90% or higher, though research shows that sprouted wheat flour absorbs less water than regular whole wheat flour, presumably because starch and proteins have been broken down during the germination process.22 Scientific research explains other important baking considerations. The greater free amino acid content in sprouted flour allows for a darker crust through the Malliard reaction or browning. Gluten formation is also impaired, as these proteins have also been partially broken during the germination process, so enzymatic activity can result in a wet, sticky crumb.23
However, there are some unique and desirable baking properties conferred by sprouting. For example, alpha-amylase levels increase as a result of sprouting, and this enzyme breaks down starches into fermentable sugars, which means that the yeast in bread dough has more to work with, resulting in a gassier, taller dough.24 Sprouted grain breads tend to be softer and have superior shelf stability.25 In fact, some amylases are intentionally added in commercial baking to improve bread height and shelf stability.26
Getting sprouted grains
Purchasing sprouted grains: Some large manufacturers, including King Arthur Flour and Lundberg Farms, which sells sprouted organic rice. To Your Health Sprouted Flour Company sells a range of sprouted grains and flours that can be shipped nationwide.
Sprouting your own grains: Grains should be sprouted for at least three days in order to maximize their nutrition.27 The Grains and Legumes Nutrition Council (based in Australia) provides succinct instructions:
“D.I.Y sprouted grains:
Once prepared, they can be used in the same way that you would ordinarily use grains – such as sprouted brown rice in a stir fry or sprouted quinoa in a salad.
Note: it’s important to be aware of food safety when it comes to sprouted grains. As they are prepared under moist, humid conditions, sprouted grains also offer an ideal condition for harmful bacteria to grow, so they can pose a risk for food poisoning. As such, the USA’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) suggests children, elderly people, pregnant women, and those with weakened immune systems should avoid eating sprouted grains.28 Fully cooking your sprouted grains can help kill potentially harmful bacteria.29