One of the newest health trends to hit the baked goods aisle is sprouted grains: You’ve likely seen them listed on bread (think Ezekiel bread), tortillas or even pasta labels. But what are sprouted grains and are they any healthier than the average, unsprouted variety?
Touted as being supportive of gut health, easier to digest and even providing more nutrients than the regular variety, sprouted grains seem like a magic bullet. But to get a better idea of what sprouted grains can offer, we chatted with experts about the potential benefits to your diet.
What are sprouted grains?
All whole grains ― sprouted or not ― are beneficial in that they contain fiber, iron, folate and B vitamins. Sprouted grains differ not in the production of the grain but in the processing of the harvested grain, according to Mark E. Sorrells, professor of plant breeding at Cornell University. To sprout grains, whole grains are soaked in water until they begin to germinate (i.e., begin growing into a little plant) and are then dried before this process can be fully released. The germination process provides distinct nutritional benefits as the endosperm, phytates and starches begin to break down, thus allowing more nutrients to be absorbed when consumed and making the end product easier to digest.
What are the health benefits of sprouted grains?
Featuring an increased bioavailability of nutrients and potentially easier digestion, there’s a lot to recommend about sprouted grains, according to Whitney Linsenmeyer, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and assistant professor of nutrition at Saint Louis University. She explained that “some of the nutrients may become more bioavailable through the sprouting process, meaning they can be more easily absorbed by the body. A study of sprouted millet found that the bioavailability of iron increased by 300%, which is especially notable since iron deficiency is a common nutrient deficiency worldwide.”
Iron isn’t the only nutrient value that is made more available during the sprouting process. According to Linsenmeyer, levels of protein, fiber, antioxidants and phytochemicals all become increased when amaranth, brown rice, wheat and millet have been sprouted.
Do you have trouble digesting grains? Sprouting them may be the answer. Plant research geneticist Lisa Kissing Kucek’s work has found sprouting to be an effective method of reducing problematic proteins for celiac disease, wheat allergies and some types of non-celiac wheat sensitivity. Further studies have found that sprouting decreases gluten by 47%, making products with sprouted grains easier for some people’s bodies to tolerate.
Increasing the availability of fiber could also be a step toward healing gut health issues, according to holistic nutritionist Joy McCarthy.
“When a grain is sprouted, the concentration of fiber is increased,” she said. “Fiber is important for gut health, including elimination and detoxification of the colon. Fiber helps to regulate bowel movements and it’s essential to reduce the risk of colon cancer. Fiber feeds your gut microbiome.” With millions of Americans not meeting their recommended daily intake of fiber, adding sprouted grains could be a step in the right direction.
Unfortunately, there is a Catch-22. Many sprouted grain products ― specifically baked goods that must rise ― require the addition of an ingredient called vital wheat protein. This is a gluten that, according to Sorrells, undoes many of the health benefits of sprouting, at least for those who have a sensitivity. A study by Kissing Kucek and others found that the addition of vital wheat gluten undoes the gluten-digesting benefits of sprouting.
The vital wheat protein is added to make baked goods rise. “If you want something that looks like bread and tastes like bread [made with sprouted grains],” Sorrells explained, “you have to have some kind of seed protein in there that will trap the carbon dioxide from the yeast.”
Who should eat sprouted grains?
The experts didn’t agree on this topic. Sorrells suggested everyone should incorporate sprouted grains into their diets while Linsenmeyer recommended only those with gluten sensitivities or allergies should seek out sprouted products.
“Sprouted grains are made from whole grains,” Sorrells said, “so you are benefiting from all the vitamins and minerals that are in the seed coat and the embryo of the grain. It’s much healthier for you.”
Linsenmeyer insisted that whole grains in any form are part of a healthy diet, but said that “if you have no GI problems that arise with consuming whole grains (bloating, gas, stomach cramps), then don’t feel the need to seek out sprouted grains. However, if you do experience these symptoms, it may be worth trying sprouted grains to see if they make a difference.”
When shopping for sprouted grain products, Linsenmeyer recommended ensuring that sprouted grains are the first ingredient on the ingredient list in order to reap the most benefit from the product, as well as avoiding products that are high in added sugars. She also suggested experimenting with sprouted grains or flour in order to avoid vital wheat gluten in your products.
Whether you want to up your nutrient quotient or just want to add grains back into your life with less gluten, sprouted grains can be a good choice for many people. Increased bioavailability of key nutrients like iron, fiber and protein along with a decrease in the overall percentage of gluten can make this a healthy addition.