June 2015 Issue
Whole Grains: Sprouted Grains
By Leesha Lentz
Vol. 17 No. 6 P. 18
Research suggests they have greater health benefits than regular whole grains. In a 2012 Eat + Run blog post for US News and World Report, Tamara Duker Freuman, MS, RD, CDN, highlighted sprouted grains, predicting that they may increase their presence on grocery store shelves and become a mainstream food trend. Duker Freuman noted that sprouted grain products already are found in the cereal, pasta, bread, and snack aisles. And the company Food for Life features the Ezekiel 4:9 brand of sprouted grain bread and claims to use sprouted grains in the majority of its products.
"One of the biggest food trends in more recent years has been more nutritious, minimally processed meals, which makes sprouted grains a pretty attractive choice for consumers," says Kelly Toups, MLA, RD, LDN, program manager at the Whole Grains Council. In the past, grains sprouted accidentally until modern processing techniques eliminated this occurrence, according to the Whole Grains Council website. Now consumers are trying to find ways to reconnect to that past.
However, Duker Freuman later questioned in her blog post whether sprouted grains were a passing fad or a legitimate food trend to incorporate into a healthful diet. According to Julie Jones, PhD, CNS, LN, distinguished scholar and professor emerita in the food and nutrition department at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota, there's plenty of "romance copy around it, but the amount of actual data we have about them is really more limited."
This article separates fact from fiction and discusses the latest research on sprouted grains and their potential health benefits, as well as what RDs should know when discussing these products with clients and patients.
What Are Sprouted Grains?
"Sprouted grains are whole grains that have been soaked and left to germinate," Toups says. "When the new sprout is still shorter than the original grain, then it's still considered a sprouted grain, but if you were to let it keep sprouting to where the sprout was longer than the length of the original grain, then it would no longer be considered a grain."
Toups explains that sprouted grains are whole grains, because all the components of the grain—the bran, germ, and endosperm—are required for the sprout to grow. "You wouldn't be able to sprout a refined grain. The sprout itself comes from the germ," she says. Therefore, all sprouted grains are whole grains, but not all whole grains are sprouted grains.
Potential Health Benefits
Because sprouted grains are whole grains, they contain more nutrients than refined grains, Toups says. "When grains are refined, they lose about 25% of their protein and are greatly reduced in at least 17 key nutrients. On top of that, sprouting has been shown to further improve health benefits. Research is showing that the sprouting process may further improve the nutrition."
The Whole Grains Council website lists several health studies that are connected with sprouted grains, stating that "Sprouting grains increases many of the grains' key nutrients, including B vitamins, vitamin C, folate, fiber, and essential amino acids often lacking in grains, such as lysine." Sprouted grains have been suggested to contain a better nutritional profile compared with ungerminated grains, because the new sprout digests some of the grain's starch, increasing the percentage of other nutrients, according to Duker Freuman's blog post.
In a June 2007 study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, researchers found sprouting wheat can increase folate levels three- to fourfold, and that sprouted wheat contains more fiber. Toups also points to a November 2013 Food Chemistry study in which researchers compared the antioxidant activity of white rice, brown rice, and sprouted brown rice and found that sprouted rice had the highest antioxidant levels. More recently, researchers in a September 2014 study in Plant Foods for Human Nutrition found that total dietary fiber increased with sprouting time and temperature in six different varieties of brown rice.
"In addition to the nutrients themselves, some studies have found an increase in bioavailability of nutrients," Toups says. "For instance, there was a study on sprouted millet, and researchers found that iron was 300% more bioaccessible, and that manganese and calcium also were more bioaccessible." This means nutrients may be more easily absorbed after sprouting, which Duker Freuman suggested would be a promising nutritional benefit to vegetarians, whose intake of certain nutrients, such as iron, may be lower. The study was published in the July 2010 issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.1
According to this research, sprouted grains may be a more healthful choice for consumers, but RDs should be cautious when discussing sprouted grains and their potential health benefits with clients and patients. The Whole Grains Council warns that there's no regulated standard definition of "sprouted grains," which means studies could be using a wide range of definitions.
"We can certainly measure the nutrient changes that occur with sprouting, but even that's different in that it depends on what seeds you sprouted, what conditions you've used to sprout [them], and how long you've sprouted [them]," Jones says. "There are so many different variables that even when you get into the literature on feeding animals, if they don't give you some of those aspects, you only know that [the seeds have] sprouted—you don't know how long or under what conditions."
Furthermore, Duker Freuman stated in her blog post that while there are promising indications of sprouted grains' health benefits, the research is lacking. Most studies "are limited to lab analyses, animal models, or extremely small human studies that can't be applied yet to the population at large," she wrote.
It's also important to remember that when conducting studies on the basis of dried weight, sprouting can look like it increases the amount of nutrients, but it may not actually increase them, Jones says. "It's why some people say when you cook a vegetable, you can actually increase the mineral content in some cases, but you haven't. What you've done is decreased the water content. You didn't create minerals by boiling it."
Nevertheless, Jones says if clients and patients enjoy sprouted grains, then they're safe to consume if done correctly. Humid conditions, which are required for the grain to sprout, also are conditions for harmful bacteria to grow; however, most manufacturers use controlled sprouting techniques to eliminate the risk of bacteria.
Toups recommends sprouted grains for individuals who are looking to add more whole grains to their diet, plus sprouted grains often offer a unique taste. "The sprouting process preconditions the grain to give up its full flavor, meaning that sprouted grains often are sweeter tasting than their nonsprouted counterparts," she says.
If clients and patients are looking for ways to include more sprouted grains in their diet, Toups says there are more than 200 sprouted grain products that have been approved to use the Whole Grain stamp. There also are sprouted grain flours that consumers can use for baking. "As far as preparation, you can substitute sprouted wheat flour cup for cup for all-purpose flour in your existing recipes. Just keep in mind that both whole wheat flour and sprouted whole wheat flour absorb a little more water, so you may have to add more water or liquid to the recipe," she says. She also suggests experimenting with different grains.
Jones believes moderation is key, and it's important to eat a varied diet and not focus on just one food trend. "Nutrition really is about balance," she says.
— Leesha Lentz is a freelance writer and editor based in Pottstown, Pennsylvania.
1. Platel K, Eipeson SW, Srinivasan K. Bioaccessible mineral content of malted finger millet (Eleusine coracana), wheat (Triticum aestivum), and barley (Hordeum vulgare). J Agric Food Chem. 2010;58(13):8100-8103.