This is one question I probably get asked via email about ten times a week, and for good reason. There is some disagreement in the health community about traditionally preparing grains, and it seems that there is a good body of evidence on both sides.
Maybe you’ve been asked why grains are bad when people from other countries (usually Asia and Italy are mentioned here) are able to eat them regularly and still stay thin. [Side note: I'll be addressing both of these misconceptions soon, but the short answer is that besides the big difference is genetics, there are some other huge dietary difference that make up for this, and Italy is seeing rapidly rising rates of obesity and heart disease. If you want a statistically valid comparison, squatting while using the restroom actually seems to be one of the best predictors of longevity...]
Even in the health community, there is a split between WAPF (Weston A. Price Foundation) followers and the Paleo/Primal/Low Carb group on the health and necessity of grains and if they should be eaten at all.
You might have read my stance on how grains are killing you slowly, but as there are claims that these traditional preparation methods reduce the dangerous properties of grains, it is worth another look.
What are Soaked, Sprouted or Fermented Grains?
All grains have various properties that protect them in the plant world and allow them to survive to produce seed. In animals, these protective features are often claws, teeth, sharp spines, venomous fangs, etc, or the ability to run away and escape enemies, but plants protective features tend to be a lot more subtle.
Since plants aren’t able to fight or evade, their protective mechanisms are less noticeable. Plants like poison ivy or poison oak have obvious protective mechanisms like the itch-inducing oils on their leaves.
The protective mechanisms of those amber waves of grain are harder to identify externally. These crops are often eaten by animals, so their protection lies in the ability of their seeds (the “grain” itself) to pass through the animal and emerge on the other side as a pre-fertilized seed, ready to grow.
Plants accomplish this through the presence of gluten, other lectins, enzyme inhibitors and phytic acid which allow the grains to pass through the digestive system without harm to the plant. (note: Phytic acid is especially damaging to bone and tooth health and has been linked to tooth decay) These indigestible compounds are great for ensuring the plants continued fertility, but they can be very harmful to humans.
From a previous article:
Gluten is a sticky, water soluble protein that is found in your favorite grains (wheat, rye, barley, etc). Grains like corn, rice and oats have similar proteins that cause problems over time. Gluten and similar grain-based proteins work to break down the microvilli in your small intestine, eventually letting particles of your food leech into your blood stream (a lovely term called “leaky gut syndrome”) causing allergies, digestive disturbances or autoimmune problems.
Lectins, are mild toxins the inhibit the repair of the GI track. Lectins are not broken down in the digestive process and bind to receptors in the intestine, allowing them and other food particles to leech into your bloodstream. Nothing like pre-digested food circulating the blood stream! The body views these lectins and the food they bring with them as dangerous invaders and initiates an immune response to get rid of them. This immune response to particles of common foods explains the allergy creating potential of grains.
Soaking, Sprouting and Fermenting
Traditional cultures where grains were consumed regularly or in large amounts found ways to reduce the harmful components of grains through methods like soaking, sprouting and fermenting.
These methods are designed to do what our body can’t and break down the anti-nutrients (gluten, lectin, phytic acid, etc) in grains so that they are more digestible to humans. Evidence shows that these methods do indeed make the nutrients in grains much more bioavailable and reduce the anti-nutrient properties.
These methods rely on using an acidic medium in liquid to soak the grains, a constructive environment to soak them and let them sprout, or a process like sourdough fermentation to alter the chemical make-up of the grain.
Certainly, most grains consumed these days are not prepared in any of these ways, but from a health perspective, are sprouted, soaked or fermented grains healthy?
Are Soaked, Sprouted and Fermented Grains Healthy?
From a nutrient perspective, grains prepared in these ways do have much higher nutrient levels and lower anti-nutrient levels than grains that are just ground into flour and baked, but should they be eaten?
The question remains, do these methods reduce the harmful properties enough to make these grains safe to consume. Mark Sisson sums it up well in his article about traditionally prepared grains:
Soaking and Sprouting:
Effect on phytate: If the grain contains phytase, some of the mineral-binding phytic acid will be deactivated, but not much. And if the grain has been heat-treated, which destroys phytase, or it contains very little phytase to begin with, the phytic acid will remain completely intact. Overall, neither soaking nor sprouting deactivates a significant amount of phytate.
Effect on enzyme inhibitors: Well, since the seed has been placed in a wet medium and allowed to sprout, the enzyme inhibitors are obviously mostly deactivated. Digestion is much improved (cooking will improve it further).
Effect on lectins: The evidence is mixed, and it seems to depend on the grain. Sprouted wheat, for example, is extremely high in WGA, the infamous wheat lectin. As the wheat grain germinates, the WGA is retained in the sprout and is dispersed throughout the finished plant. In other grains, sprouting seems more beneficial, but there’s always some residual lectins that may need further processing to deactivate.
Effect on gluten: Sprouting reduces gluten to some extent, but not by very much. Don’t count on it. A little bit goes a long way.
Adding fermentation to the mix reduces the harmful properties even more, but does not completely render them harmless.
The presence of these anti-nutrients in all grains also explains why people who avoid wheat for health reasons but still consume “gluten-free” foods may still have health problems. Wheat is definitely at the more dangerous end of the grain spectrum, but the others aren’t harmless by a long shot, and many of them are higher in simple starches than wheat.
So, Should We Eat Them?
Certainly, these methods of preparation do improve the nutrient profile of what is otherwise a harmful food to consume, but this still doesn’t mean that sprouted, soaked, or fermented grains are healthy or that we need to consume them.
If you are going to consume any grains, it would definitely be better to prepare them in one of these ways (or all three!) to make them less harmful to your body, but I stand by my assertion that there is no need for grain consumption at all.
There are no nutrients in grains, even traditionally prepared ones, that are not found in other foods, and many other foods are higher sources of nutrients than traditionally prepared grains.
It should be noted that all plant substances have properties that can make them harmful to humans in some way, but that it is much easier to reduce these harmful properties in other plants (cooking cruciferous vegetables like Broccoli and cauliflower, peeling and cooking sweet potatoes, etc). This is also why I recommend limiting beans, nuts, etc. or soaking and dehydrating the nuts to remove the anti-nutrient properties. (More on this soon)
So, in short, I don’t recommend grain consumption at all, even if they are properly prepared, as they aren’t an exceptional nutrient source and they do have harmful properties. If you suffer from an autoimmune condition or leaky gut, even these types of grains should be carefully avoided as they can make the condition worse.
For the small percentage of the population that doesn’t have any food related problems and that have excellent gut health, some of these grains might be ok occasionally in moderation, but other than taste, there is no reason to eat them.
There is also a definite difference between grains high in anti-nutrients like wheat, barley, etc and ones like white rice (not brown rice) which are naturally free of the more potent anti-nutrients like gluten) and which seem to be somewhat less harmful.
The other point worth mentioning is that even sprouted, soaked and fermented grains cause a spike in insulin and can inhibit weight loss and lead to other health problems if eaten in large amounts.
- Yes, these methods do reduce the harmful properties but do not eliminate them. As grains still aren’t a stellar source of nutrition, even with all these elaborate preparation methods, and they can be/are harmful to many people.
- For the little bit of nutrition they might provide, the benefit is still overshadowed by the harmful properties that still exist in small amounts (gluten, lectin, phytic acid, etc) and they take an extreme amount of preparation time and energy for this small amount of nutrition.
- If you have a strong, healthy gut, eat an otherwise nutrient rich diet and go to these great lengths to properly prepare grains, you might be able to tolerate them occasionally, but why go through all the trouble when we live in a time where there is access to healthier foods (vegetables, meat, good fats, etc.).
- In an age where we are bombarded by toxins in our air, water and food supply, removing grains (even traditionally prepared ones) is an easy step we can take to improve our health and to make room for other, more nutritious foods in our diets.
- If a substance (in this case, grains) might be harmful for you to consume, and there are no negative effects of removing it, logically, it would be wise to avoid it.
What do you think? Do you consume sprouted, soaked, or fermented grains? Totally disagree with me? Let me know below!