The Healthy Skeptic examines some grainy beliefs and expectations
The “health food” movement that began in the late 19th century has its pros and cons.
Pioneers like Sylvester Graham and Dr. Harvey Kellogg were right to bring whole grains and other whole foods to the fore.
But they had some wacky ideas, too, and that dichotomy — generally wise impulses accompanied by some nutty notions — has persisted in the natural-health world.
So, we’ll try to (pardon the pun) separate the wheat from chaff regarding claims for the superiority of sprouted grains.
One widely distributed brand of natural breads labels their sprouted-grain varieties “Ezekiel 4:9” and “Genesis 1:29” — bread-related Bible verses that lend those loaves a heavenly, healthy halo.
Thanks in large part to health-food propaganda — like labeling sprouted breads with Biblical verses — many people presume that sprouted grains are better than standard, un-sprouted grains.
But do sprouted grains — and baked goods made with them — truly deserve their healthy halo?
The answer isn’t a clear “yes” — but there’s real evidence in support of the value of sprouted whole grains.
Whole, white, and sprouted: a grainy glossary
Before we examine the alleged advantages of sprouted grains, let’s define some basic terms: whole-grain, refined grain, and sprouted grain.
Many sprouted-grain breads feature wheat flour, but many loaves include sprouted millet, barley, or oats — while some include bean (typically lentil or soy) sprouts.
To simplify matters, we’ll focus on wheat, because it’s the grain most commonly used in regular and sprouted products, thanks to its particular “physio-chemical” — i.e., baking and binding — properties.
Looking from the inside out, the core of a wheat kernel is its slightly fatty, vitamin-rich germ, which is surrounded by the protein- and carbohydrate-rich endosperm enclosed in the outer shell of bran, which consists largely of healthful fibers.
And there is voluminous evidence showing that whole grains are actively healthful for most people. For example, see Whole Grains Linked to Reduced Death Risk, Whole Grains May Help Deflect Diabetes, Whole Grain Foods Found High in Antioxidants, Do Whole Grains Hurt or Help Gut Health?, and Do Grains Help or Harm Health?.
White flour is produced by removing the wheat kernel's germ and bran, leaving only the endosperm, which gets ground to varying degrees of fineness for different uses.
As its name implies, sprouted wheat consists of whole wheat kernels or “berries” that have been allowed to sprout. The sprouting process is halted early, so the kernels can be used in bread or other baked goods.
Sprouting wheat kernels are dried to stop the sprouting process and then sometimes ground into flour.
But sprouted-grain can be coarsely ground to produce a dense dough from which loaves can be baked without using flour — a method that typically produces a dense texture.
This is how the American Association of Cereal Chemists deﬁnes sprouted grains: “Malted or sprouted grains containing all of the original bran, germ, and endosperm shall be considered whole grains as long as sprout growth does not exceed kernel length and nutrient values have not diminished. These grains should be labeled as malted or sprouted whole grain.”
Their definition has been adopted by the USDA, giving it some legal force, so a bread or other product labeled “sprouted grain” should only include whole, unrefined grains.
Evidence shows some good things about sprouted grains
Makers of sprouted-grain goods claimed they offer nutritional advantages over standard whole grain goods.
And the evidence does generally show that sprouted grains typically offer some significant — but not dramatic — advantages over standard whole-grain goods.
Unfortunately, articles about sprouted grains tend to make sweeping statements based on one or two studies that studied the effects of sprouting on a specific grain species and cultivar, raised under specific conditions.
In other words, the devil is in the details, and levels of nutrients and “anti-nutrients” (such as phytates) can vary widely among different species of grain grown in different regions under different conditions.
Minerals: Consistently higher levels of certain ones
The levels of calcium, iron, niacin and fiber often resemble those found in whole-grain breads. Selenium levels in grains closely reflect the selenium levels of soil in which they’re grown. Average North American wheat is relatively high in selenium
Vitamins: Consistently higher levels of certain ones
Sprouted grains tend to offer modestly higher levels of B vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene.
Antioxidant phytochemicals: Significant advantage, for a while
Few people are aware that the levels of non-vitamin antioxidants in whole grains rival those found in fruits such as berries.
Most of those antioxidant compounds belong to the polyphenol or carotenoid families, high levels of which account for the striking blue-purple-red hues in heritage corn and some rice strains.
However, some of the antioxidants in grains are “bound” within fibers or other structures, and aren't easy for the human digestive system to extract.
The proportion of “bioavailable” antioxidants in a given grain — or sprouted grain — will vary, depending upon whether and how it has been cooked, refined, or otherwise altered from its original state.
And studies in millet, amaranth, and barley all find that the levels of “bioavailable” polyphenols rose during the first 48 hours or so of the sprouting process.
Importantly, the study in barley found that levels of polyphenols dropped below the original levels after 2½ days, suggesting that the time that a grain has been germinating (sprouting) before being dried for use can be critical to its antioxidant levels.
Protein: Minor but inconsistent advantage
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and sprouting raises amino acid levels in grain kernels. So hypothetically, sprouted grain bread should have more protein than standard whole-grain bread.
Sprouted-grain breads may also provide a bit more protein because the process of sprouting reduces carbohydrate levels, which automatically raises the proportion of protein in a sprouting versus un-sprouted grain.
The results of studies are inconsistent, because different labs have tested different kinds of grains and breads and rarely make the whole grain content of the tested breads — sprouted, multi-grain, or otherwise — clear.
It’s interesting to note that the percentages of protein in their whole-wheat flour and sprouted wheat flour from King Arthur — a major flour supplier for bakeries and consumers — are virtually identical, with standard whole wheat flour being 14% protein versus the sprouted version at 13.5% protein.
Carbohydrates: Less starch, more sugars
The carbohydrates (starches and sugars) in grains get transformed by the digestive enzymes generated within a sprouting grain kernel.
Those changes to a sprouting grain's carbohydrates generally raise the proportion of sugars to starches. (Sprouted grains are also called “malted” grains, because maltose is one of the main sugars created when the enzymes in a sprout digest its starches.)
That said, some studies suggest that these carbohydrate transformations reduce the extent to which sprouted grains raise blood sugar levels, compared with standard whole grains.
Again, the changes within a sprouting grain vary by grain species and length of sprouting, rendering broad statements unreliable.
However, sourdough bread may be a better bet for that purpose. Several studies suggest that sourdough bread — which features partially fermented flour — yields smaller rises in blood sugar, compared with whole-grain breads, which in turn produce smaller blood-sugar rises than white bread.
Fiber: Modestly higher levels
While the evidence varies by grain and length of sprouting, there does appear to be an overall rise in fiber levels when a grain begins to sprout.
Gluten: Generally lower levels
Gluten is the predominant protein in wheat, barley, rye, and spelt, and it’s responsible for the chewy, elastic texture of bread.
Gluten seriously sickens and can even kill people with celiac disease, and a growing proportion of people appear to be sensitive to gluten even though they don’t have celiac disease and show no medical signs of an allergy to gluten.
In addition, gluten may trigger or worsen inflammation, leaky gut syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other health problems in some people.
So, it’s significant that sprouting appears to reduce gluten levels in wheat by up to 47%, which may make sprouted grains easier for gluten-sensitive folks to tolerate and reduce any innate tendency to develop gluten sensitivity.
Nonetheless, people with celiac disease or significant gluten sensitivity, should avoid sprouted grains that contain gluten.
Phytic acid: Lower levels
Phytic acid is found in grains, beans and other plant foods. Importantly, phytic acid can bind to nutrients — especially minerals like calcium, iron, and zinc — rendering them less available to the body.
Cooking generally enhances the digestibility of most grains but does not eliminate phytic acid or disable its “anti-nutrient” effects.
Sprouting grains and legumes can substantially reduce their phytic acid content, which in turn can significantly raise the absorption of the aforementioned minerals.
Lectins: Lower levels, but only after weeks of sprouting
Lectins are proteins found in almost every plant food, from tomatoes to grains.
In his best-selling book, The Plant Paradox, Steven Gundry, M.D., claims that lectins are an unrecognized source of health problems, including leaky gut, chronic inflammation and autoimmune diseases.
However, there is no solid evidence backing his claims — and ample evidence to the contrary — making his assertions much too strong and sweeping.
Grains are typically high in lectins, but some portion of them gets metabolized by the enzymes created when a grain kernel sprouts.
While one study found that 34 days of sprouting reduced lectin levels in wheat by about half, a grain that has sprouted that long is of no practical use, such as for making baked goods.
The bottom line: sprouted grains may beat standard whole grains, but not by a lot
We don’t have enough evidence to justify the sweeping claims often made for the superiority of sprouted grains.
That said, we have enough evidence to justify suggestions that sprouted grains offer some modest, highly variable nutritional advantages over standard whole grains.
And importantly, baked goods made from sprouted grains are generally milder in taste, compared with goods made from standard whole grains.
And anything that will prompt more people to replace refined grains with whole ones is a very good thing!
• de Punder K, Pruimboom L. The dietary intake of wheat and other cereal grains and their role in inflammation. Nutrients. 2013 Mar 12;5(3):771-87. doi: 10.3390/nu5030771. Review.
• Lee YM, Han SI, Song BC, Yeum KJ. Bioactives in Commonly Consumed Cereal Grains: Implications for Oxidative Stress and Inflammation. J Med Food. 2015 Nov;18(11):1179-86. doi: 10.1089/jmf.2014.3394. Epub 2015 Sep 18. Review.
• Mofidi A, Ferraro ZM, Stewart KA, Tulk HM, Robinson LE, Duncan AM, Graham TE. The acute impact of ingestion of sourdough and whole-grain breads on blood glucose, insulin, and incretins in overweight and obese men. J Nutr Metab. 2012;2012:184710. doi: 10.1155/2012/184710. Epub 2012 Feb 28.
• Singh AK, Rehal J, Kaur A, Jyot G. Enhancement of attributes of cereals by germination and fermentation: a review. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2015;55(11):1575-89. doi: 10.1080/10408398.2012.706661. Review.
• Vitaglione P, Mennella I, Ferracane R, Rivellese AA, Giacco R, Ercolini D, Gibbons SM, La Storia A, Gilbert JA, Jonnalagadda S, Thielecke F, Gallo MA, Scalfi L, Fogliano V. Whole-grain wheat consumption reduces inflammation in a randomized controlled trial on overweight and obese subjects with unhealthy dietary and lifestyle behaviors: role of polyphenols bound to cereal dietary fiber. Am J Clin Nutr. 2015 Feb;101(2):251-61. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.114.088120. Epub 2014 Dec 3.
• Yang F, Basu TK, Ooraikul B. Studies on germination conditions and antioxidant contents of wheat grain. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2001 Jul;52(4):319-30.