Sprouted Grains
Sprouting, or germination, refers to the process by which grain kernels are exposed to water and the germ is allowed to form a short sprout. According to the USDA, if the sprout does not exceed the length of the kernel and the grain contains all of the original bran, germ, and endosperm, then it can be considered a sprouted whole grain. The sprouted grain can be cooked and consumed as an intact grain, or it can be dehydrated and ground into a 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, sweeter flavor; people can eat something closer to the taste of the refined flour they are used to while at the same time reaping the nutritional benefit of whole grains. Further, sprouted grains have their own unique nutritional properties, though there is a need for more research on how they affect human health.

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 some sprouts. [Link to: [1]] Sprouts are said to have been prescribed by ancient Chinese physicians and used by 16th-century pirates to prevent scurvy. [Link to: [2] ]

The technique has recently enjoyed renewed interest due to consumer demands for minimally processed and additive-free foods.[Link to: [3] ] Indeed, data from 2006 to 2016 show a steady increase in the demand and production of sprouted grain products.[Link to: [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 that are 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 [Link to baking with sprouted grains], and have a quicker cooking time. [Link to: [5] ]

The science of sprouting and its impact on nutrition
Prior to sprouting, the kernel is somewhat dormant, but once exposed to water and the right environmental conditions, it can start to “wake up.”[Link to: [6] ] Over time, a range of metabolic processes are re-ignited and the seed begins to sprout.[Link to: [7] ]During seedling development, enzymatic activity in the kernel breaks down starch into smaller sugars (hence, its sweeter taste), which may make it easier for us to digest. [Link to: [8] ]Enzymes also break some proteins down into amino acids, others are synthesized. [Link to: [9] ] An increase in antioxidants, including beta-carotene, vitamin C, and tocopherols occurs, heightening the nutritional benefit. [Link to: [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 absorption of important minerals including zinc, iron, calcium, magnesium, manganese, and copper in the human body.[Link to: [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.[Link to: [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 [link to whole grains nutrition].[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 availability of minerals to the human body.[Link to: [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. [Link to: [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. [Link to: [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.[Link to: [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. [Link to: [18] ] It has been called into question by multiple authors if the “health halo” experienced by 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.[Link to: [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.[Link to: [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.[Link to: [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. With these potential health benefits in mind, why not add them to your whole grain collection?

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 [Link to: https://healthyflour.com/recipes/baking-tips/]). He says that unlike other whole wheat flour, sprouted whole wheat flour lends a lightness without the bitterness that can be associated with whole-grain flours. Some bakers and plant breeders suggest that the bitterness is not inherent in whole grains but begins developing when the grains are milled, inviting oxidization which results in bitterness 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. [Link to: [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. 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 due to sprouting and this enzyme’s breakdown of 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  Lundenberg Farms, sell sprouted grains. 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 to maximize their nutrition.[27] The Grains and Legumes Nutrition Council (based in Australia) provides succinct instructions:

D.I.Y sprouted grains:

  1. Rinse grains and place in a jar
  2. Soak the grains in water for 12 to 24 hours. They will expand as they absorb water, so it’s important that all grains are completely submerged
  3. Use a sieve with small holes to drain the water completely from the jar, leaving the grains
  4. Rinse your grains twice a day and leave them to drain at an angle
  5. Depending on the temperature, humidity, and type of grain, sprouting should start to occur within three to seven days
  6. When you are happy with the level of sprouting, dry completely in a low oven or dehydrator and refrigerate for 3 days

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]

Further tips on sprouting your own grains and legumes can be found in this video, and video instructions on how to make your own freshly milled sprouted flour can be found here.

[1] “Sprouted Grains: Modern Trend, Ancient Method – Today’s Dietitian Magazine,” accessed July 8, 2021, https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/0219p16.shtml.

[2] J. Pagand et al., “The Magic and Challenges of Sprouted Grains,” Cereal Foods World 62, no. 5 (September 2017): 221–26, https://doi.org/10.1094/CFW-62-5-0221.

[3] Paolo Benincasa et al., “Sprouted Grains: A Comprehensive Review,” Nutrients 11, no. 2 (February 2019): 421, https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11020421.

[4] Pagand et al., “The Magic and Challenges of Sprouted Grains.”

[5] “Sprouted Grains: Modern Trend, Ancient Method – Today’s Dietitian Magazine.”

[6] “Germination | Description, Dormancy, & Facts,” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed July 2, 2021, https://www.britannica.com/science/germination.

[7] “Germination | Description, Dormancy, & Facts.”

[8] “Sprouted Whole Grains | The Whole Grains Council,” accessed July 7, 2021, https://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/whats-whole-grain-refined-grain/sprouted-whole-grains.

[9] Benincasa et al., “Sprouted Grains.”

[10] Benincasa et al.

[11] Benincasa et al.

[12] Raj Kishor Gupta, Shivraj Singh Gangoliya, and Nand Kumar Singh, “Reduction of Phytic Acid and Enhancement of Bioavailable Micronutrients in Food Grains,” Journal of Food Science and Technology 52, no. 2 (February 2015): 676–84, https://doi.org/10.1007/s13197-013-0978-y.

[13] Gupta, Gangoliya, and Singh.

[14] Gupta, Gangoliya, and Singh.

[15] Fengfeng Wu et al., “Germinated Brown Rice and Its Role in Human Health,” Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 53, no. 5 (2013): 451–63, https://doi.org/10.1080/10408398.2010.542259.

[16] Wu et al., “Germinated Brown Rice and Its Role in Human Health.”

[17] Wu et al.

[18] Benincasa et al., “Sprouted Grains”; Pagand et al., “The Magic and Challenges of Sprouted Grains.”

[19] Lemmens et al., “Impact of Cereal Seed Sprouting on Its Nutritional and Technological Properties”; Pagand et al., “The Magic and Challenges of Sprouted Grains.”

[20] Pagand et al., “The Magic and Challenges of Sprouted Grains.”

[21] Vikas Kumar et al., “Dietary Roles of Phytate and Phytase in Human Nutrition: A Review,” Food Chemistry 120, no. 4 (June 15, 2010): 945–59, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodchem.2009.11.052.

[22] Lemmens et al., “Impact of Cereal Seed Sprouting on Its Nutritional and Technological Properties.”

[23] Lemmens et al.

[24] Lemmens et al.

[25] Lemmens et al.

[26] “Amylase | Baking Ingredients,” BAKERpedia (blog), accessed July 8, 2021, https://bakerpedia.com/ingredients/amylase/.

[27] Lemmens et al., “Impact of Cereal Seed Sprouting on Its Nutritional and Technological Properties.”

[28] “Exploring Ancient Wisdom with Sprouted Grains | Grains & Legumes Nutrition Council,” accessed July 8, 2021, https://www.glnc.org.au/exploring-ancient-wisdom-with-sprouted-grains/.

[29] “Sprouted Grains: Modern Trend, Ancient Method – Today’s Dietitian Magazine.”