There are a number of healthy foods that were once considered fringe fare, relegated to the realm of health-food stores and to the diets of people who preferred tie-dye to neckties. Yogurt, granola, hummus, and goji berries are all examples of "alternative" foods that debuted on the margins but have since gone mainstream. And to this list, it appears we may soon add sprouted grains.
To understand what sprouted grains actually are, let's have a quick review of botany. What we think of as "grains"—rice, wheat, corn, oats, barley—are actually the mature, dormant seeds of cereal grasses. Just like any other seed, under the right conditions of temperature and moisture, these seeds can germinate into young plants and start the life cycle anew. (Remember growing pea shoots in Dixie cups lined with moist paper towels when you were in kindergarten?) Indeed, this is exactly what wheatgrass and barley grass are: the young grasses of fully-sprouted wheat and barley grains that have not yet matured enough to form grains of their own. Like grains, beans and seeds can also be sprouted, and you may encounter sprouted lentils, mung beans, or pumpkin seeds in the months ahead if you're paying attention as you shop.
There is a brief period in the life cycle of a grain or seed—right after it has started to sprout, but before it has developed into a full-fledged plant—when it's considered to be a "sprouted grain." The outer bran layer will have split open, and the beginnings of a young shoot may be visibly peeking out of the grain. In this stage, some of the starchy portion of the grain will have been digested by the young shoot to fuel its awakening. It is this change in state that results in the observed nutritional difference between sprouted and conventional (ungerminated) grains.
Due to the loss of some of the grain's starch, the other nutrients, like proteins, vitamins, and minerals, will increase slightly as a percentage of the total unit of grain. Some studies also suggest that certain minerals—namely iron and zinc—may become more "bioavailable", or more easily absorbed, after sprouting. That's likely due to a reduction in the content of natural compounds called phytates, which normally inhibit mineral absorption from many plant foods. For this reason, sprouted grains may offer the most promising nutritional benefits for vegetarians, whose intake of these important minerals tends to be lower. (However, it's worth noting that the scientific research on this remains somewhat sparse and is limited to foods like millet and mung beans that are more commonly consumed in the developing world, as opposed to the wheat, corn, and lentils that feature more prominently in Western diets.)
Lastly, to the extent that the starchy portion of certain grains and pulses may be difficult to digest for some people, sprouted versions may also be better tolerated digestively. This may be especially true for sprouted legumes, like beans and lentils, whose starches are notoriously difficult to digest and account for these foods' "gassy" reputation. Indeed, many people who follow raw diets use sprouting as a technique to allow them to consume chickpeas and beans without cooking (often in the form of hummus). It should be noted, however, that home-sprouted beans may pose a food safety risk due to the humid conditions used to induce their germination. These are the same conditions that potentially harmful bacteria need to grow, too. Because of this risk, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services recommends cooking all sprouts before consuming them to reduce the chance of foodborne illness.
Despite the promising indications that sprouted grains may represent a nutritionally superior alternative to ungerminated grains, research has yet to catch up. Most investigations into the health benefits of sprouted grains are limited to lab analyses, animal models, or extremely small human studies that can't yet be applied to the population at large. Furthermore, while improved digestibility may represent a tangible benefit for foods like lentils and beans, it may be a less compelling sell for foods like rice and cor, which aren't exactly known for being tough to digest—even in their ungerminated form.
In my clinical practice, some of my patients who love beans and legumes but find them too difficult to digest have been testing their tolerance for store-bought sprouted lentils instead. Some others, who find that conventional, store-bought breads make them feel a bit bloated—even though they don't technically have Celiac disease or gluten intolerance—report that they tolerate sprouted-grain bread much better.
For those who follow a vegetarian diet, sprouted grains and legumes might also be worth prioritizing to help ensure iron and zinc needs are being met. In other cases, however, it's unclear whether foods like corn flakes, to cite one example, really benefit from the sprouting treatment. After all, they're already quite digestible as it is, and contain no iron to speak of before—or after—sprouting.
As is the case with any food claim—whether it be gluten-free, organic, or sprouted—it's important to consider the nutritional merits of the food itself and not be swayed by the healthy halo of a trendy new marketing term.
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Tamara Duker Freuman, MS, RD, CDN, is a NYC-based registered dietitian whose clinical practice specializes in digestive disorders, Celiac Disease, and food intolerances. Her personal blog, www.tamaraduker.com, focuses on healthy eating and gluten-free living.