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Sprouted foods: a fad or of nutritional merit

by Doris Penner

      Once considered “fringe fare,” sprouted foods are becoming mainstream along with hummus, granola and quinoa. Most Canadians have been aware for years of bean or alfalfa sprouts appearing on salad bars or used in Asian cooking However, the range of sprouted foods has increased considerably to include a variety of sprouted legumes such as lentils, peas and lima beans in addition to the more common mung beans, grains including wheat and barley as well as grass and vegetable seeds. Not only are sprouts eaten fresh, but reading labels in the supermarket reveals that sprouted-grain products can be found in the cereal, bread and snack aisles. Why this craze with sprouted foods? Is it just a fad that will end in a fizzle a few years down the road or do sprouted foods add a nutritional component to diets?

     Sprouting is the process whereby seeds germinate. It happens in our gardens every spring a week or so after seeds have been placed in the warm soil and water applied. If we were able to look below the surface of the soil, we would see the seed break open its outer shell and send up a light green shoot. Botanists tell us that starch in the seed is used as energy to make this happen. This same process can be simulated on a large scale for commercial purposes or at home on the windowsill to produce sprouts—the brief period in the life cycle of a plant before it develops into a full-fledged plant.

Easier to digest

     The question is why bother with sprouts at all? What nutritional benefits do they offer that could not be acquired from the seed itself (which may be a grain or legume) or from the full-grown plant? It is interesting to note that, indeed, there are noticeable nutritional differences between the sprouted grain or seed and its unsprouted counterpart.

     To begin with, sprouted seeds or grains are easier to digest because in a sense, part of the “digestion” has already taken place. During sprouting, some of the starch is broken down into simple sugars such as glucose and sucrose by the action of the enzyme amylase. Some proteins as well are converted into their component parts—amino acids—and oils are converted into fatty acids. This is not significant for most people, but becomes important when an individual suffers from digestive issues. This is especially true in the case of pulses or legumes which contain oligosaccharides responsible for gas formation (resulting in flatulence). In the process of germination, oligosaccharides are reduced by 90 percent.

     One of the benefits of sprouted grains is the increase in the content of vitamin C, D, E and several B vitamins. It is not clear whether this is true only because the percentage of starch is much less in the sprouted grain and thus the content of vitamins appears greater. Whatever the case, certain vitamins and minerals increase in bioavailability when the seed sprouts—that is, they are more easily absorbed by the body. This has shown to be true of iron and zinc—probably due to the reduction in the content of phytates which normally inhibit mineral absorption from plant foods. This is especially significant for vegetarians whose intake of these important minerals is often low since they are best obtained from animal foods.

Quality of protein

     Another important nutritional benefit is an increase in the quality of protein when the seed or grain sprouts. It appears when the seed soaks in water and begins the growth process, storage proteins are converted into albumin and globulin which, again, are more easily absorbed by the body. As well, sprouted grains (wheat, rye and barley) contain less gluten than the unsprouted grain, an advantage for people who are gluten sensitive.

     Consumers should be aware that commercially grown sprouts carry a risk of contamination with salmonella, listeria or other bacteria since they thrive in warm humid conditions necessary for the seed to grow. Always purchase sprouts or sprouted seeds or grains from a reputable grower or retailer, and consider cooking sprouts before eating. When growing sprouts at home, look for seeds especially prepared for sprouting—they will be clearly labelled as such. These have been cleaned and thus are less likely to contain pathogenic bacteria.

     Are foods advertised as incorporating “sprouted grains or seeds” significantly more nutritious? Sprouted grains will not make an unwholesome food nutritious, but it adds a small benefit in an otherwise healthy diet.