Soaking, sprouting, and fermenting grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes
One of the major changes that I have made in my eating and food-preparation habits in the past year has been embracing the practice of “properly preparing”* grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes. In a nutshell (haha…), this process gets rid of bad stuff and increases good stuff. Don’t worry, I’ll elaborate more further on.
What does it mean to “properly prepare” these things?
Properly preparing these seed-like foods (I mean really that’s what they all are) involves soaking, sprouting, or fermenting the grain/flour/nut/seed/legume first, before eating or cooking with it.
Weird, right? I had heard of sprouting, but I didn’t know why it was beneficial, and I certainly didn’t know that un-soaked/sprouted grains could be troublesome. No one told me these things! So much for whole wheat bread being good for me! Bummer. But now I know, and now you know!
Why should I bother with this process?
One of the major reasons to “properly prepare” grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes is to decrease a substance called phytic acid. Phytic acid is considered an “antinutrient” and is somewhat controversial. The discussion of antinutrients, like many topics in food science and nutrition, is multi-faceted, and to be completely honest, I still have many questions about. Much of nutrition is not about “good” or “bad” but about balance. For example, when people ask whether a certain substance (sodium, cholesterol, saturated fats, etc.) is “good” or “bad”, I think it’s like asking if water is good or bad. Water is necessary for many things, but can be more or less helpful depending on the context that it is in. I’m not going to elaborate on that; you can do so on your own if you wish. 🙂 Anyways, going back to the topic at hand, I personally like to know exactly WHY and HOW things happen the way they do. I like to know black and white, yes or no. The topic of antinutrients like phytic acid doesn’t lend itself very well to my desire for straightforward answers, but I have done my best to fully understand it, and will therefore do my best to explain it here.
Phytic acid pros & cons
Cons – phytic acid binds to important minerals and renders them unabsorbable, leading to mineral deficiencies and associated problems
I was confused at first when I came across articles defending phytic acid, because I had only read about its negative properties. Because of this, I spent hours researching the topic, and have come to the conclusion that although there are some benefits (which is good I guess, since we rarely neutralize all of it anyway!), the risk of mineral deficiencies is important enough to prioritize.Now for the info!
What is Phytic Acid?
Phytic acid is an organic compound found in plants, consisting of an inositol ring with six phosphorous groups bound to it (sorry, I know that was technical-sounding). This is the way that plants store phosphorus.
It has a tendency to bind to other minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, zinc, and iron, keeping us from being able to absorb and benefit from those minerals. For example, almonds are excellent sources of magnesium, but a portion of the magnesium could be bound to the phytic acid, minimizing the amount that I would actually get from it. In my research, I came across some debate as to whether or not phytic acid really was a problem, and some information about potential benefits that it may have as an antioxidant and heavy metal remover, but overall I feel convinced that reducing phytic acid is worth the effort. (I’m not the first person to try to understand this topic, and in my searching I came across some really helpful resources here, here, and here.)
What do soaking, sprouting and fermenting have to do with anything?
The enzyme phytase (teachable moment: anything ending in “ase” is an enzyme that breaks down molecules) is what breaks down the phytic acid, reducing its ability to bind to other minerals. Ruminant animals, birds, mice, and other animals that routinely eat grains and seeds naturally produce phytase, which protects them from mineral depletion. Humans, however, produce very little phytase. Therefore, we are susceptible to the mineral-binding properties of the phytic acid. We can, however, activate and cultivate the phytase enzyme, and that’s where the methods of soaking, sprouting, and fermenting come into play.
In her book, Nourishing Traditions, Sally Fallon explains the benefits of soaking grain, nuts, seeds, and legumes: “Soaking allows enzymes, lactobacilli and other helpful organisms to break down and neutralize phytic acid. As little as seven hours of soaking in warm acidulated water will neutralize a large portion of phytic acid in grains. The simple practice of soaking cracked or rolled cereal grains overnight will vastly improve their nutritional benefits.” (452) Sally goes on to say that soaking also produces enzymes and vitamins, and partially breaks down difficult-to-digest components of the grains, such as gluten.
The basic process is to soak grains in warm filtered water mixed with some sort of acid (lemon juice or apple cider vinegar) or cultured dairy (whey, kefir, yogurt, or buttermilk) for at least 7 hours. Whether you’re making chili, brown rice, quinoa, oatmeal, or almond butter, you want to soak first. This does rule out most quick-to-prepare baked goods, like cookies, brownies, pie crusts, etc., but there are “properly-prepared” versions out there! Some examples are: soaked buttermilk peanut butter brownies (I made these last week and they made my husband very happy) and Sally Fallon’s recipe for Pie crust (I haven’t actually made this, but I want to).
Something cool that I recently learned: some grains, like rye and buckwheat, produce more phytase enzyme while soaking than others, so, for example, if you add some buckwheat to your oatmeal while it’s soaking, the pytase produced by the buckwheat will help break down the phytic acid in the oats!
Also, if you want to avoid the phytic acid, but want to make baked goods without having to soak your flour, you can use sprouted flour (or make your own) made from sprouted and dehydrated grains. Another option is to look for versions using coconut flour.
If you want to improve the nutrition and digestibility of your grains, etc., even further, you can allow them to germinate! Here’s another quote from Nourishing Traditions, this time on the benefits of sprouting. It’s a little long, so in case you prefer to skim, I bolded some of the key points:
The process of germination not only produces Vitamin C, but also changes the composition of grain and seeds in numerous beneficial ways. Sprouting increases Vitamin B content, especially B2, B5, and B6. Carotene increases dramatically — sometimes eightfold. Even more important, sprouting neutralizes phytic acid, a substance present in the bran of all grains that inhibits absorption of calcium, magnesium, iron, copper and zinc; sprouting also neutralizes enzyme inhibitors present in all seeds. These inhibitors can neutralize our own precious enzymes in our digestive tract. Complex sugars responsible for intestinal gas are broken down during sprouting, and a portion of the starch in grain is transformed into sugar. Sprouting inactivates aflatoxins, potent carcinogens found in grains. Finally, numerous enzymes that help digestion are produced during the germination process. (112)
In short, sprouting both decreases the unwanted qualities of grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes, and increases and produces beneficial qualities.
Sprouting works particularly well for reducing phytic acid in lentils.
Also, make sure to use organic foods when sprouting, because non-organic crops are often treated with chemicals that inhibit them from sprouting so they last longer. (See picture below!)
The most effective way to remove phytates from grains is to ferment them. Fermenting allows the lactobacilli and enzymes to really go to work on the sugars and gluten in the grains, further breaking them down and creating more vitamins in the process.
My favorite grain-fermentation method is sourdough. I have grown to rely on my sourdough starter to make pretty much everything flour-based. It’s super versatile! For more details on working with sourdough, I have a whole post dedicated to it: Sourdough Post
Here are some of my favorite sourdough recipes:
Basic sourdough bread – we have also made this recipe into rolls
pizza crust – simple and versatile!
English muffins – can be a little messy to make, but they always seem to come out well
1-minute chocolate mug cake (yes, this exists!)
nut butter sourdough cookies (these were pretty good!)
Making it practical:
Yes, this is probably overwhelming (I was definitely overwhelmed by it at first!), but with some practice and planning ahead, it’s not that bad. Here are some tips:
- you can modify your recipe searches in order to find “properly-prepared” recipes. For example, if I want to make muffins, I’ll search “soaked muffins” or “sourdough muffins” and usually I find something good.
- you can make a lot of these things (beans, rice, etc.) in big batches and then freeze them to cut down on future prep time!
- some blogs are already dedicated to making properly-prepared foods, such as Gnowfglins, Riddlelove, Nourishing Days, Nourished Kitchen, The Nourishing Cook, and The Nourishing Gourmet
I hope that this was interesting and helpful!
Also, here are some of the articles that I found in my research, which I would recommend reading to further your understanding:
Phytic acid: Defining and dealing with a common antinutrient – Nourishing Days
An Objective Look At Phytic Acid: Actions, Sources + Dephytinization Methods – Healthfoodlover.com
Phytic Acid – Mineral-grubbing Nuisance or Magic Food? – Evolutionary Psychiatry blog
The benefits of soaking nuts and seeds – Food Matters
Why Soaking Grains isn’t necessarily the best way to prepare them – Nourishing Days
- Why Sprout? – The Nourishing Gourmet
Weston A. Price article: Putting the Polish on those Beans
*I use the quotes because one of the major tenets of my nutritional therapy program is that optimal health is contingent upon a “properly-prepared, nutrient-dense whole foods diet”, so whenever I talk about foods being properly prepared, that’s what I’m referring to.
What do YOU think about this subject?
Other resources not already linked to: Fallon, Sally, Mary G. Enig, Kim Murray, and Marion Dearth. Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook That Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats. Washington, DC: NewTrends Pub., 2001. Print. “Phytic Acid.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 04 Feb. 2014. Web. 04 Apr. 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phytic_acid>.