Monday, September 20, 2010

Trendy Bytes: Sprouted Grains

 Photo credit: (Flickr)

Sprouted grains are going mainstream these days. These used to be something that only "health nuts" consumed, but now I'm seeing more people purchasing sprouted grains or products made with sprouted grains, such as sprouted wheat, barley, millet, or spelt.  Some are even taking it a step further and sprouting their own grains at home.  You go!  Sprouting is not really a new concept. Hello -- alfalfa sprouts or bean sprouts!  So why has sprouting become so chic?  It's all about nutrition, baby!  More people are turning to whole foods for enhanced wellness and nutrition.  Sprouting fans claim that sprouted grains contain more high quality protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals, a better balance of amino acids, more bioavailable nutrients, enzymes that enhance digestibility, and a lower glycemic index.  And doesn't the word sprout just sound so fresh and nutritious?  But just how well do these sprouted grains stack up nutritionally against their unsprouted counterparts?   Let's shake out the facts to see how the sprouting enthusiasts' claims compare to the evidence.

You may be asking yourself, "What are sprouted grains?". So let's start there. Sprouted grains are made by rinsing and soaking whole grains, like wheat, millet, barley, or oats, at various intervals over the course of a few days until the grains germinate or sprout.  Fresh sprouted grains are often used in sandwiches, wraps, or salads, but they can also be dried and ground for use in breads, pastas, and similar products. 

Do sprouted grains reign supreme in nutrient composition? Let's imagine you're going to eat a serving of sprouted wheat (1/2 c) and unsprouted wheat berries (1/4 c).   You will find that sprouted wheat has a modest edge over unsprouted wheat with a slightly higher content of select minerals (eg, calcium) and vitamins (eg, vitamin C).  Sprouted wheat also contains less carbohydrate, fiber, and protein along with slightly less fat and select minerals (eg, iron) and vitamins (eg, some B vitamins).  Values for many of the other nutrients are actually pretty comparable between the two.  Researchers acknowledge that while there are some nutritional gains made during the sprouting of grains, they are minor.  Studies in animals have failed to find significant benefits with consumption of sprouted vs unsprouted grains.  So, you'll find little evidence supporting the benefits of human consumption of sprouted grains over unsprouted grains.

Is the amino acid composition enhanced?  During sprouting, it appears that the content of certain amino acids increases.  However, sprouted grains still remain low in some amino acids, and the improved amino acid composition does not make sprouted grains a complete source of protein, like meat, fish, poultry, eggs, or soybeans. 

Are the nutrients more bioavailable?  Sprouting does reduce the amount of certain antinutrients, such as tannins or phytic acid, that bind to nutrients, such as minerals, thereby reducing their bioavailability.  This is certainly one advantage of sprouted over unsprouted grains.  However, it doesn't mean that unsprouted grains aren't nutritious, and consuming a diet that incorporates a wide variety of foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and high quality sources of protein, helps enhance overall intake of many nutrients. 

Does sprouting boost enzyme activity? Sprouting grains for a short time appears to increase enzymatic activity, which may improve digestibility of both the protein and carbohydrate.  However, that enzymatic activity would also decrease or cease with processing, cooking, storage time, and digestion.  

Do they have a lower glycemic index (GI)?  Some sprouted grain products do appear to have a lower glycemic index than unsprouted whole grain products.  This may be most useful to individuals with diabetes.  At the same time, many factors, such as meal composition, affect the GI of a food.  Also, it's best to consider the whole diet, rather than a single food, along with other factors, such as physical activity, when discussing ways to manage blood sugar levels.   
    What's the bottom line?  While there are nutritional differences between sprouted and unsprouted grains, many appear to be minimal. These differences will likely depend on the type of grain, the quality of the grain, the length of germination, processing, and preparation method of the grain.  Basically, when it comes to nutrition, I think we might be splitting hairs when comparing sprouted to unsprouted grains.  Also, remember that whole grains and sprouted grains are both going to be more nutritious options than refined grains. While they may not be as miraculous as proponents claim, experimenting with sprouted grains can be a fun way to add variety to your diet. So go ahead, try it! 

    Are you a sprouting enthusiast?  What are your favorite sprouted grains, legumes, or seeds?    


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