By Cat, Oct 2007 (Photo, right, from Wikimedia Commons)
All seeds are designed to discourage animals from eating them, by containing substances that are toxic to the predator. Grains are no exception; their seeds contain certain anti-nutrients called lectins, such as wheat germ agglutinin (WGA) which is present in the germ of all grains, not just wheat, and also alpha-gliadin (part of the gluten complex). They protect the seed from insects, yeast and bacteria that could disable the seed’s ability to germinate; they also cause digestive distress for large animals that consume the seed. The best defense against lectins is to sprout or ferment the grain (as in sourdough). Other anti-nutrients may be broken down by long cooking. (9)
In fact, sprouting or fermenting their grain is how the Biblical people were able to eat bread to sustain their health and life; this is the bread that Jesus shared with his disciples at the Last Supper.
Humans only gave up sprouting or fermenting their grain in the late 1800s, when processing of the whole wheat kernel into white flour, stripping it of the bran and germ, became popular. We now are suffering the consequences, primarily a rise in incidence of Type-2 diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases like dementia, and gluten intolerance/gluten sensitivity.
- See also: 1. Grains, Flours & Starches Menu; 2. Whole foods (about) menu;
- Includes: 1. What seeds can be sprouted in your kitchen
;2. Grain harvesting; 3. Sprouted grain flour; 4. Phytates: the good vs bad news; 5. Gluten intolerance/ sensitivity;
What seeds can be sprouted in your kitchen?
Almost all seeds can benefit from sprouting; for example, grains, nuts, pumpkin and sunflower seeds; some benefit more than others. Unsprouted nuts and seeds eaten in small amounts probably do not cause digestive upset, but eaten in larger quantities can cause the formation of considerable gas, and constipation. Sprouting and drying the nuts and seeds renders them more digestible, without altering flavor. It’s a bit of a bother, so I recommend doing a large quantity at one time, and then store them in the refrigerator, or a cool & dry place in your pantry.
Important notes about sprouting or soaking seeds
NOTE: Some seeds cannot be sprouted in the kitchen, or are difficult to sprout. These include:
- Flax seeds (they get too mucilaginous to rinse properly; however, they are low in physic acid when not sprouted, and so should not cause problems if consumed in small quantities);
- Oat seeds will not sprout once separated from their outer hulls; however, they do benefit from soaking and/or long, slow cooking, as in old-fashioned porridge;
- irradiated seeds and spices
NOTE: Some grains do not have sufficient phytase enzyme to deactivate the phytates in the grain, even after a long soaking period. These include oats, millet, corn and sorghum. To improve phytate deactivation, mix a bit of fresh-ground wheat or rye (which are high in phytase enzyme) with these low-phytase grains when sprouting, to increase phytate deactivation and thus increase available minerals (5).
NOTE: Liming or nixtamilization of corn flour: For maximum nutrition and absorbability, corn flour (cornmeal) should be soaked in lime water for at least 7 hours, prior to doing an acidic presoak. See Lime water (for soaking cornmeal to make masa). Or use Masa harina, which is corn flour made from corn kernels that are soaked in lime water prior to grinding to flour.
Photo, below, donated by R. Robbins and used with permission from M. Forbes, Bigfork Museum of Art & History (formerly Bigfork Art and Cultural Center)
In older times, even as late as the 1950s, grains were harvested differently than they are today. The sheaves were harvested and grouped into bundles or shocks, which were then stacked like teepees, and left in the fields to weather for several weeks. During this weathering, the grain was exposed to rain and dew, and heat from the sun, conditions just perfect for germination (sprouting) or fermentation.
After the period of weathering, the shocks were threshed to remove the grain from the sheaves, and then allowed to dry before being shipped off to the mill for grinding. (See Wessels’ Living History Farm (7) for lots more about this old method).
In this way, the flour in our kitchens WAS a sprouted grain flour. The phytates were deactivated and the enzymes released to break down the complex, indigestible starch to more digestible vegetable starches and sugars (2).
Today, the big combines harvest and thresh the grain seeds all in one big step, and are kept cool and dry while shipped to the grain mill, so that the seeds do not get the chance to sprout. Modern flour is ground from unsprouted seeds.
Sprouted Grain Flour
Regular flour available today is made by grinding the unsprouted seed of the wheat (or other grain) plant, and has a few inherent problems:
- The un-sprouted grain contains phytic acid, which binds minerals, making them unavailable for absorption;
- Enzyme inhibitors are present to keep the enzymes bound in a non-active state, and are thus not available to aid digestion; and
- The starches in the grain are largely undigestible by humans, as we do not produce enough pancreatic enzymes for this purpose, and the enzymes inherent in the grain are not available.
Sprouting the grain resolves these problems
Germination causes amazing and wonderful things to happen to the seed, turning it from a seed to a young sprout that will grow to a plant. One of the first steps in germination breaks down the phytates that bind the minerals. Once freed, the minerals activate enzymes in the seed which cause:
- Formation of the sprout and subsequent growth;
- Creation of additional nutrients not present in the original seed (e.g,, vitamin C).
- Alteration of proteins, oils and carbohydrates in the seed to support and nourish the young sprout.
This later action also makes the grain more digestible for humans and animals who consume the sprouted seed.
Sprouted grain can then be dried (dehydrated), and ground into flour; see Using Sprouted Grain flour vs Fermented Grain (Sourdough), below, for more.
- You can sprout, dry and grind the grain at home (if you have a dehydrator and grinder); see Soaking & sprouting grains/flours or Grains: Soaking & Sprouting Before/After Grinding/Rolling, or Nourished Kitchen (6) for instructions).
- Order it online if it is not available at your local natural foods store. My favorite source is Granite Mill Farms in Trout Creek Montana; you can purchase it through their website (8). Another online source is Summers Sprouted Flour Company (1); it is also available from Amazon; however, Im not sure they are still in business (they had to shut down in the great recession).
- Or you can soak whole-grain flour overnight – the first step in sprouting – rather than letting it sprout; this doesn’t accomplish all the good things that sprouting does, but it does release the minerals which in turn activate enzymes that can begin to do their work. See Soaking & sprouting grains/flours for details.
For lots more on soaking whole-grain flours and seeds, refer to Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon with Mary G. Enig, Ph.D..
Substituting with sprouted grain flour in recipes
Generally, you can use cup for cup; however, both regular and sprouted spelt flour need less moisture in the recipe; see my article: Spelt vs Wheat in Baked Goods and Pasta. See the Brod and Taylor (10) for more about baking with sprouted grain flours. (The Kitchn (9) also has helpful info, but I disagree with their advice regarding moisture when using spelt).
Using Sprouted Grain Flour vs Fermented Grain (Sourdough)
If you sprout your grains, then dry them (in a dehydrator or oven at lowest setting), you can then grind them into flour. You can also buy sprouted grain flour (primarily on the internet), such as Granite Mill Farms in Thompson Falls, Montana (8).
The resulting flour can be used in recipes calling for regular (un-sprouted) flour (see previous section). However, some adjustment in moisture might be necessary, because sprouted grain flours are drier than regular flour. The added moisture can be fruit juice, water, milk, or a liquid sweetener (honey, molasses, or maple syrup).
I have found that sprouted grain flour works great for recipes using baking soda/powder and/or eggs to support the rise, such as quick-rise breads, cookies and cakes. It is also great for pie crusts and other uses where a rise is not wanted. But it doesn’t work so well for yeast-risen doughs, such as for bread and rolls.
I recommend using fermented grain (sourdough) for bread and rolls (instead of yeast). It can also be used for quick-rise. See the following articles on this site for more about sourdough:
Phytates: The Good vs The Bad News
Depending on which article you read, phytates are either presented as beneficial for health, or bad for health. Both points of view are true; it’s all a matter of balance. The truth is that phytates bind minerals. This means they bind calcium, magnesium, zinc, copper, iron and trace minerals, making all of them unavailable for absorption.
- If you are magnesium (Mg) or zinc (Zn) deficient; for example, if you suffer from osteoporosis, then you would want to avoid phytates, so that your body can absorb these minerals. Just remember that iron (Fe) in the seed may also be absorbed, and too much iron can be problematic.
- If you have an excess of iron (Fe), thus increasing your risk of cancer, you would want phytates, which would chelate and remove the iron from your digestive tract. Just remember that they also remove the calcium (Ca), Mg, Zn, and other minerals as well, so all things in moderation.
The personal decision about phytates is not an easy one for the layman to make. Talk with your doctor or medical/nutritional advisor. Remember that because your circumstances may change with time, the phytate decision may need to be re-evaluated.
The endosperm of most grains (the white part) contain a protein complex called gluten, which causes health issues for many people:
- Some people are gluten intolerant (they lack the enzymes to digest it);
- Others are gluten sensitive, often because they have difficulty digesting the complex starches in the grain; this in turn weakens their digestive system so that they have difficulty digesting gluten as well.
Both issues cause inflammation in the gut, and require difficult gluten-free diets. If you believe you have issues with gluten, ask your doctor for a specific blood test that test for the gluten antigen; if the test is positive, you are gluten intolerant; if negative, you are either gluten-sensitive, or something else is causing the inflammation.
Note that gluten is a complex of several proteins, one of which is a lectin that is toxic for many people (there are also lectins in grains that are not part of gluten, such as WGA – wheat germ agglutinin – present in the germ of wheat). Fermenting the grain begins the breakdown of lectins, thus removing its toxic nature. For this reason, many people with gluten issues don’t have a problem with fermented grain breads, etc.
NOTES about oats: While oats lack gluten, they have a related protein called avenin, which causes similar problems for people intolerant or sensitive to avenin (I have this problem).
Oats that are processed in the same facility as wheat or other gluten grains, may be contaminated with gluten, so if you have gluten issues, be sure to use gluten-free oat products.
If you are gluten-sensitive, you may be able to tolerate, and even benefit from using sprouted grains, which strengthen the digestive system and allow it to digest the gluten after a time of healing. A similar option for some people is to use fermented grains, such as sourdough. The key is to avoid grains for several months to allow your gut to heal, then introduce the sprouted or fermented grains slowly.
If you have difficulty with gluten grains, I suggest the following:
- Get the blood test for the gluten antigen, to determine if you are truly gluten intolerant;
- If that test is negative, first take a several month break from all grains (to desensitize your system), then try using sprouted grain flour (see above) in place of regular flour, or fermented grains, adding them gradually into your diet.
See also Grains: Health Issues for more on gluten issues (link goes to my old website until I get it moved).
- Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon with Mary G. Enig, Ph.D..
- westonaprice.org/modernfood/wheatyindiscretions.html citing Crisafi, Daniel, ND, MH, Ph.D. 1995. Alive Magazine 1995.
- Nourished Kitchen, How to make sprouted grain flour (nourishedkitchen.com/how-to-make-sprouted-grain-flour
- Wessel’s Living History Farm: Farming machines in the 1920s
- An email I received from Chris Masterjohn: “[Lectins in grains] are quite definitely problematic if they are not appropriately neutralized, whether by processing of the food or by interception in the digestive tract. Some lectins are broken down during cooking or other processing, some are not. The two main lectins in wheat are WGA
in the germ and alpha-gliadin [from gluten] in the endosperm. WGA is an N-acetyl-glucosamine-binding lectin and alpha-gliadin is a mannose-binding lectin. Cooking does not neutralize either of them; long-rise sourdough culture neutralizes alpha-gliadin but I do not know about WGA. Both lectins can be intercepted by their respective sugars or by polyreactive or specific IgA antibodies in the digestive tract. The sugars can be provided in the diet but also circulate in digestive secretions; their concentration in digestive secretions will vary between individuals, as will IgA antibody secretions, leading to individual differences in susceptibiltiy to their harmful biological activity.”