"Eat more plants” is a common refrain these days, and rightly so. They’re very good for us. It’s certainly possible to thrive on an all-plant diet; meat is after all vegetable protein converted to a different form. But there’s a catch. All seeds—whether grains, legumes, or nuts—contain compounds that inhibit our body’s ability to absorb all the nutrients our food contains. The more you rely on whole grains and legumes for your nutrition, the more you need to sprout them.
Seeds evolved to be indigestible; many of them depend on being consumed and excreted (in a big pile of fertilizer) for their germination. The antinutrients present in their hulls are powerful preservatives: viable seeds have been found in Egyptian tombs. But nature’s way of preserving seeds can work against us, since those protective compounds impair our absorption of important nutrients in the food. Over time, this can lead to deficiencies and illness. Let the seeds begin to sprout, though, and a magical transformation occurs: enzymes within the seeds convert the antinutrients into nutrients. Seeds are storehouses of nutrition, but they’re also factories for generating even better nutrition and as such they don’t work until they’re switched on.
Philip Domenico, PhD is a Woodstock-based microbiologist specializing in infectious diseases who has spent 40 years studying nutrition. He advocates sprouting as many of the seeds we eat as possible: “We want to turn to unadulterated foods because they’re wholesome, and yet they are often full of antinutrients that can hurt us. Sprouting is a process of predigesting food that makes it much easier for us to absorb nutrients. Proteins are broken into amino acids, and long carbohydrates into simple sugars. There’s less stress on the pancreas, since because of the enzymatic activity in sprouts we need to produce fewer digestive enzymes of our own.”
There are many different anti-nutrients present in seeds, but phytate is among the most serious. Phytic acid is a snowflake-shaped molecule with six phosphate groups around the outside, which bond readily to the minerals in our food. As a result, those sequestered compounds pass through our systems without being absorbed; we end up getting much less from our food than we could. Iron absorption suffers, and calcium is especially susceptible to bonding with phytate. Domenico likens it to “stealing from our bones.”
Many of our bodies’ enzymes require these minerals as catalysts. Since phytate reduces the amount of available minerals, our natural defenses lack what they need to do their jobs. Metallothyamine, for example, which chelates heavy metals, needs zinc in order to function. If much of the zinc we eat passes through us unused, enzyme function will be inhibited. Over the long term, even a small reduction in the efficiency of our bodies’ chelation can result in a significant accumulation of toxic metals. Other enzymes function similarly, digesting everything from protein to carbohydrates. Tannins in seed hulls bond to protein, preventing assimilation, which can be especially problematic for vegetarians.
Sprouts produce phytase, the enzyme that neutralizes phytic acid. “It’s not just decreasing the antinutrients; sprouting also increases nutrients,” Domenico continues. “Vitamin C content can increase up to tenfold in sprouts, and other vitamins increase dramatically as well. Broccoli has more anticancer compounds than almost anything, and sprouting only makes them more powerful.” (And the peppery little sprouts taste great in salads and sandwiches). Lentils are the easiest legume to sprout, and one of the most nutritious. Sunflowers and pea shoots are both wonderful microgreens, as are mung beans. Moving sprouts into sunlight for a day before eating them allows them to produce chlorophyll, Domenico says, further increasing their nutritional content: “Just a little green on the end of a lentil sprout adds a lot of nutrition.”
Seeds really want to sprout; all we have to do is let them. Avoiding mold and maintaining moisture levels are the key. Put the seeds of your choice in a mason jar and fill it with water. Get a perforated lid, or just tie some plastic mesh over the mouth and pour the water out. Leave the jar propped with the open mouth facing down to prevent any pooling water (which lets mold grow) and rinse and repeat a couple of times a day. Alternately, put some seeds between two paper towels and dampen them. Keep them damp for a few days, and you’ll have sprouts ready for any purpose.
Besides growing sprouts for eating, another important technique is soaking. Traditional cultures all developed techniques for sprouting and fermenting grains and legumes to maximize nutrition, and we can learn from them. Put the beans or grains in a nonreactive container and cover them with water, then leave them alone for a day or two at room temperature. A little unrefined sea salt is an excellent addition to the water; the minerals in the salt are converted by sprouting seeds into their bioavailable forms, meaning we get much more benefit from them. Hard water makes more nutritious sprouts for the same reason. A little bit of fermented pickle brine (you make your own pickles, right?) whey or yogurt are both good choices for adding acidity to the water, which is important to sprouting. Both also allow for lacto-fermentation of the seeds, which is especially effective, and since you make your pickles with sea salt, that’s already taken care of. Just soak grain overnight or longer at room temperature with a spoon of yogurt or live brine, and then cook it normally (though it will need less water because the soak will have partially hydrated it). Save a little of the enzyme-rich soaking water for the next batch, and it will have a head start on breaking down the bran, since probiotics also produce phytase. Coarse corn meal soured this way for 24-48 hours and then prepared as polenta cooks in no time and has an extra tangy layer of flavor that improves the result.
Whole sprouted wheat or rye berries can be cooked like risotto. Sprouted chickpeas make better hummus and falafel. Sprouted grain bread can easily be made by sprouting grains, grinding them into a paste (don’t add water; they’ve absorbed enough) then adding a bit of yeast or starter, some salt, and letting it rise. “The predigesting process actually sweetens grain,” Domenico adds, “and fermentation enhances flavor as well as nutrition.” Rye has lots of phytase, and ferments quickly; add some rye berries to other grains (especially rice) when soaking them. Nuts are a bit tricky; hard to germinate, Domenico recommends soaking them overnight, then dehydrating them with some salt and then roasting them to add flavor. Soak sesame seeds overnight and then make tahini or dehydrate or roast them and then grind them with sea salt to make gomasio, an excellent Japanese condiment. When dealing with whole-grain flour, which cannot be germinated, the solution is to make sourdough bread that ferments at least overnight, using a wild yeast starter instead of commercial yeast. Besides making the bread much more nutritious and digestible, it also improves the flavor; the difference in taste between a loaf of bread or a pizza crust that has soured for two days in the fridge between rising and baking is night and day.
Sprouting makes more food available to people who have dietary restrictions. The glycemic index of foods drops when they’re sprouted; the carbohydrates are converted to soluble fiber and sugars. People with gluten intolerance can digest sprouted grains far more easily, in much the same way that the lactose-intolerant can eat fermented cheeses. In many ways, though, the health benefits of sprouting are invisible; since most of the problems associated with long-term consumption of anti-nutrients are chronic and slow to develop, there’s no immediately visible payoff. But stressing cure over prevention and the desire for instant gratification is a big part of the pill-popping problem in our approach to health as a society. Wouldn’t it be easier to not get diabetes or osteoporosis in the first place?
There are real culinary benefits to sprouting, too. Herbs like cilantro, parsley, and chives make excellent microgreens for salads or garnishes. Try sprouting fenugreek (a legume) for a wonderful bright taste that works on any Asian dish. Mustard seeds, fennel, cumin, caraway: If you use the spice in your cooking, use the sprouts as well. These are vibrant, healthy, living foods that can be in constant supply all year long in even the smallest kitchen. And the flavors change, too; we use cilantro and coriander to refer to two different stages in one plant’s life cycle, and they taste different. A sprout splits the difference between herb and spice, opening up new possibilities.
Sprouting does take a little time, and you need to pay attention, but the payoff is significant. It’s a great teaching tool for kids as well—hell, put them in charge of it. Even if you don’t sprout, at least soak everything overnight with a little acidic culture added; it begins the germination process and makes a big difference to the nutrition. This is something many of us already do, putting some beans in water to cook the next day. Just do it with your rice, too, and maybe start two days ahead, changing the water a few times. Your body will thank you.
A comprehensive resource on the nutritional effects of sprouting and souring.
Peter Barrett cooks just about every day and shares his home culinary endeavors and
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