It's easy to forget how big a role seeds play in our diet.
Grains, pseudocereals, legumes and nuts are all technically seeds. That means foods like rice, barley, oats, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, chia, pinto beans, black beans, peas, chickpeas, almonds and walnuts all technically fall under the category of seeds. As you well know, seeds can grow things. This fundamental rule of biology is at the heart of a food preparation technique known as sprouting.
Though sprouting has existed forever, it's recently come into vogue in a big way. Why? Because it's a simple way to make your food more nutritious and digestible while neutralizing plant-based food's natural defense mechanisms. Here's what you need to know about sprouting.
What is Sprouting?
In the most basic sense, sprouting is the practice of germinating seeds that will later be eaten raw or cooked.
Sprouting is done by placing the seeds in warm water, normally overnight. Once they've soaked for between 8 and 12 hours, the seeds are placed in a dry vessel (typically a jar). From there, they are rinsed two or three times a day, and the excess water is drained. Within a few days, you can expect to see quarter-inch sprouts emerging from the seeds. Thus, your food is now "sprouted." This helpful chart gives details on how to sprout a wide number of different seeds. Sprouting is all about initiating the growing process and then intervening at a given point.
"Sprouting, I think it's kind of had a resurgence recently. I've been seeing a lot more products that are sprouted," says Ryan Andrews, nutrition coach at Precision Nutrition. "A lot of people are so unfamiliar with sprouting, but it's just kind of another way to prepare food. [When you compare sprouting] to things like microwaving or boiling or grilling, we're just more comfortable with those things in our society."
Sprouting sounds like a lot of effort. What's the point?
Sprouting makes many of the nutrients in seeds more absorbable.
"[Sprouting] is kind of getting the growing processed kicked off and making it more digestible for the human body. In and of itself, seeds are just random little things that might not want to be consumed by a human," Andrews says. "The process of sprouting can enhance the bioavailability of things like zinc, iron and calcium, really important minerals. At the same time, it can decrease stuff that can block absorption of nutrients."
What kind of stuff? Anti-nutrients. Anti-nutrients are present in every plant-based food. Anti-nutrients are defined as "naturally occurring substances found in plant-derived foods that interfere with absorption or proper functioning of nutrients in the body." Tannins, for example, are a class of antioxidant polyphenols that may impair digestion of various nutrients. Foods high in tannins include nuts, chickpeas and beans. Protease inhibitors can hinder protein digestion due to their effect on digestive enzymes. Foods high in protease inhibitors include soybeans and legumes.
Sprouting is a very effective way to reduce the amount of anti-nutrients in a given seed. For example, one study found that quinoa that had been sprouted and then cooked contained roughly 50 percent less phytic acid (a known anti-nutrient) than it would have if it had just been cooked. As for boosting nutrients, sprouting has been found to boost the bioavailability of nutrients such as crude protein, amino acids, zinc, iron, magnesium and more.
If you're looking for a high-profile example of sprouted foods, look no further than Tom Brady's new line of pre-packaged snacks. The ingredient lists include sprouted cashews, macadamia nuts, brazil nuts, cashews and almonds. Brady is notoriously strict about his nutrition, so the inclusion of so many sprouted ingredients is no mere coincidence.
Wow! So we should probably sprout every seed we eat, right?
Not exactly. Though sprouting food offers some great nutritional benefits, anti-nutrients aren't entirely evil.
Anti-nutrients have effects that might sound undesirable at first, but they're not quite as simple as you might think. Like many substances, their effects within the body are complex. In fact, most anti-nutrients also do quite a lot of good. Lectins aid in functions like inflammation control and might even reduce tumor growth. Protease inhibitors are thought to have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. Phytic acid is believed to help lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease.
"[Anti-nutrients] are the very same components that are thought to give beans, lentils, whole grains, vegetables, and fruits their well-documented disease-fighting powers. In fact, you may know these 'anti-nutrients' by another name—'phytonutrients,' the highly-prized, health-boosting compounds that we celebrate in whole foods," writes registered dietitian Johannah Sakimura on Everydayhealth.com.
RELATED: The Truth About Anti-Nutrients
Interesting. So is sprouting worth my time?
It depends. If you're a master of food prep looking to squeeze the greatest number of nutrients out of your diet, including some sprouted foods is certainly a good idea.
Andrews says, "So few people do food prep at home. It's hard enough for people to just boil something on a stove, so asking people to sprout at this point, I feel like it's never going to happen. But if someone said, 'Ryan, I'm willing to do anything. Tell what you think is optimal for my health.' I'd tell them incorporating sprouted foods is a good idea. Not all the time; everything doesn't have to be sprouted. But it's a way to incorporate more variety in the way we prepare foods, and I think that's a good thing. Different things take place in the sprouting process. You might free up some nutrients you're falling short on. I'm a huge fan of variety in cooking methods, foods, etc. Everything has pros and cons, so the more you spread it out, the better."
I think I'd like to give sprouting a shot. What else should I know?
Great. First, some foods can be eaten immediately after they've been sprouted—but not all. Raw sprouted kidney beans (or just raw kidney beans in general) contain a toxin known as phytoaemagglutinin and therefore must be boiled before they're consumed. Raw alfalfa sprouts have been linked to a high number of food-borne illnesses.
"If someone wanted the absolute optimal way to absorb as many nutrients as possible, doing some sort of cooking after the sprouting would be best," says Andrews. "You can sprout something then cook it a lot of different ways. Many things you can just eat sprouted, but not everything. Raw sprouted kidney beans, you don't want to do that. It can be fatal. Raw alfalfa sprouts have been linked to a lot of food-borne illnesses. But a lot of things are fine: lentil sprouts, chickpea sprouts, almonds sprouts, those are just fine to eat raw."
It's also good to know that soaking can be a quicker way to unlock some of the benefits that sprouting offers. Soaking refers to the first part of the sprouting process where the seeds are simply "soaked" in warm water for between 8-12 hours. After the soak, you should discard the water. "The process of soaking gets that beneficial series of events going. Some of the compounds that can block our digestion of nutrients can go into the water, so when you get rid of the water, you're getting rid of some of the stuff you don't want," Andrews says.
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