Sprouting is essentially the practice of germinating seeds — whether grains, nuts, beans or other kinds of seeds — so that they are easier to digest and your body can access their full nutritional profile.
According to a recent medical review, when comparing sprouted seeds (in this case sprouted grains) to unsprouted grain seeds, the unsprouted grains had “lower protein content, deficiency of certain essential amino acids, lower protein and starch availabilities, and the presence of certain anti nutrients.” (1).
Many different types of “seed” foods can be sprouted, and some that you probably don’t even realize are seeds. Grains, for example, are really the seeds of cereal grasses. Sprouting seeds makes them edible even when raw, but sprouted seeds can also be used for baked and cooked recipes too.
Sprouted flours are used to bake (for example in bread, muffin, or panache recipes), add to salads (for example sprouted nuts or beans), as well as in stir-fries, soups and stews. Sprouted foods are a prominent ingredient in many raw food diets, but they have plenty of benefits for people following any type of diet.
Sprouting grains, nuts, beans and seeds has been a common practice in places like Eastern Asian and Europe for literally thousands of years. In fact, different forms of soaking, sprouting and fermenting seeds have been a part of almost every culture in one way or another because our ancestors understood the many advantages and health benefits that came along with sprouting foods.
The Power of the Sprout
One of the biggest benefits of sprouting grains, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds is that it helps to decrease the presence of anti-nutrients. Anti-nutrients are naturally occurring compounds that are found in plant seeds that interfere with our ability to digest vitamins and minerals within the plants.
Why do anti-nutrients naturally exist in plant seeds? Anti-nutrients actually have a protective property within plants; they help plants to survive by warding off pests and insects because once ingested, the plant’s predators become somewhat sick. Anti-nutrients also have the job of keeping a seed from sprouting until it’s ripe enough and ready to mature.
One of the most well-known and problematic anti-nutrients found in grains, beans, nuts and seeds is called phytic acid. According to experts from the Weston A. Price Foundation: (2)
Phytic acid or phytate (in its salt form) locks up calcium, copper, iron, magnesium and zinc and can stunt growth. Phytate can lock up 80 percent of phosphorous, cause calcium excretion; inhibit zinc absorption by 80 percent and magnesium by 40 percent. Anemia, bone loss and a host of health conditions can result from deficiencies of these minerals.
In addition to phytic acid, other forms of compounds similar to anti-nutrients can also be found in unsprouted foods. These include the anti-nutrients such as:
- Polyphenols- these can inhibit digestion of copper, iron, zinc and vitamin B1, along with enzymes, proteins and starches found in plant foods.
- Enzyme inhibitors- these are found in plant foods and prevent adequate digestion and can cause protein deficiency and gastrointestinal upset. Tannins are enzyme inhibitors and so are other difficult-to-digest plant proteins like gluten. Enzyme inhibitors not only cause digestive problems, they can contribute to allergic reactions and mental illness.
- Lectins and Saponins- these are anti-nutrients that affect the gastrointestinal lining, contributing to leaky gut syndrome and autoimmune disorders. Lectins are particularly resistant to digestion by humans: they enter our blood and trigger immune responses. Lectins can cause GI upset similar to classical food poisoning and immune responses like joint pain and rashes. Improperly prepared raw grains, dairy and legumes like peanuts and soybeans have especially high lectin levels.
Sprouting grains, legumes, beans, and seeds increases the availability of calcium, iron, and zinc, plus it reduces polyphenol, lectin, and tannin content by an average of 50 percent!
8 Benefits of Sprouting
1. Increases Nutrient Absorption — B12, Iron, Magnesium and Zinc
According to researchers, sprouting foods for a limited period “causes increased activities of hydrolytic enzymes, improvement in the contents of certain essential amino acids, total sugars, and B-group vitamins, and a decrease in dry matter, starch, and antinutrients.” (8)
By sprouting seeds, nutrients including amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), sugars in the form of glucose, and even vitamins and minerals become more available and absorbable. (9) (10) For example, studies have found that folate increases in sprouted grains up to 3.8-fold. (11)
And other studies found that when soaking seeds for about one week, improvements in the concentration of vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, and antioxidants ferulic acid and vanillic acid can all be observed. For example, a 2012 study have found that vitamin C levels. plus phenolic and flavanoid antioxidants, significantly increased in mung bean sprouts when they are germinated for up to 8 days. (12)
Another study found that vitamin C, vitamin E and beta-carotene (a form of Vitamin A) were all barely detectable in the dry grains, but sprouting the grains increased their concentrations significantly, with peak concentrations of the nutrients being observed after 7 days of sprouting. (13)
2. Makes Foods Easier to Digest
For many people, eating grains, beans, nuts and seeds is problematic when it comes to digestion and frequently causes inflammation. A major benefit of sprouting is that is unlocks beneficial enzymes, which make all types of grains, seeds, beans and nuts easier on the digestive system. This also helps increase beneficial flora levels in the gut so you experience less of an auto-immune type of reaction when you eat these various forms of seeds.
Especially with grains, these methods also help to break down complex sugars and starches which makes the grains more digestible. In recent studies, the digestibility of storage proteins and starches improved due to partial hydrolysis interactions that took place during sprouting. (14)
Studies even show that grains become easier to digest and break down for those with diabetes after they’ve been sprouted because of changes in the amount of phenolenic acids and enzymes available. Both short and long term sprouting helped diabetics to regulate amylase-enzyme activity that is needed to properly digest glucose.
More research is needed, but this may be helpful in the future as a treatment option for helping those with insulin resistance to properly digest and use glucose (sugars) found in high glycemic foods. (15)
Even more digestive benefits can be found in fermented grains, because these contain probiotics. Probiotics inhabit the gut flora with healthy “good bacteria”, while decreasing the presence of harmful “bad bacteria”, which helps digestion, detoxification, and nutrient absorption.
3. Decreases Antinutrients & Phytic Acid
Sprouting helps to drastically cut down on the level of carcinogens and anti-nutrients present within seeds. Carcinogens, known as aflatoxins, are present naturally within plant foods including peanuts, almonds, corn and other nuts. These can act like toxins within the digestive tract and may cause a range of digestive problems. And anti-nutrients, including phytic acid, have the ability to leach on to minerals and make them unabsorbable by the body. (16)
According to the Phytic Acid Organization, soaking beans for just 18 hours can reduce the content of phytic acid in beans by up to 70% depending on the kind. (17) The level of phytic acid differs between different food groups, and even within the same food group, but all beans, nuts, seeds, and grains can benefit from soaking and sprouting.
Another study found that sprouted and fermented nuts contained significantly less tannins, another type of antinutrient toxin, than unsprouted nuts did. Sprouting the nuts freed nutrients from being bound and unabsorbable, while also improving the nutrient content of the nuts to some degree. (18)
Because sprouting helps to reduce the presence of antinutrients, improvements in digestibility and nutrient absorption are commonly seen when people switch from unsprouted foods to sprouted foods. (19)
4. Increases Protein Availability
Depending on the exact seed that is sprouted, proteins in the form of amino acids can become more concentrated and absorbable in sprouted foods. (20) Some studies have shown that an increase in amino acids including lysine and tryptophan can take place when seeds are sprouted, however the protein gluten can also decrease in grains when sprouted.
While the concentration of different proteins in sprouted foods seems to vary, most studies indicate that proteins become more digestible when the seeds are sprouted. When a seed begins to sprout, natural chemical changes take place and as a result enzymes are produced to convert nutrients for the growing plant to utilize. As sprouting continues, complex proteins are converted into simple amino acids, making them easier on digestion.
5. Increases Fiber Content
Several studies have found that when seeds are sprouted their fiber content increases and becomes more available. (21) Reports show that sprouting increases concentrations of crude fiber, which is the fiber that makes up the cell walls of plants. When we consume plant’s crude fiber, the fiber cannot actually be absorbed within our digestive tract and therefore it helps to push waste and toxins out of the gut and to regulate bowel movements.
6. Breaks Down Gluten for Easier Digestibility
In a 2007 study done by the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, researchers sprouted wheat kernels for up to one week, while analyzing them at different stages to learn the effects of changes in gluten concentrations and other nutrient levels. They found that sprouting decreased gluten proteins substantially, plus it was also able to increase folate and dietary fiber. (22)
Other studies have shown that as time goes on, sprouted flours can further decrease in gluten, while the availability of total amino acids (protein), fats and sugars becomes more easily available. (23)
7. Helps Reduce Other Allergens Found in Grains
Aside from decreasing gluten protein concentrations, sprouting grains has been shown to help reduce other food allergens (especially one called 26-kDa allergen) that is found in grains like rice for example.
In one study researchers found that sprouted brown rice contained much lower levels of two allergen compounds when compared to non-sprouted brown rice. (24) They believed that the reduction was due to certain enzyme activities that took place during sprouting.
8. May Increase Enzymes & Antioxidants
According to a 2013 study, sprouting legume seeds can increase their nutritive value by raising phenolic and flavonoid antioxidant levels. (25) When researchers sprouted the seeds, antioxidant levels significantly increased and improved free radical scavenging and anticancer activities when compared to the seeds that had not been sprouted.
One 2007 study found that after sprouting buckwheat for 48 hours, concentration of beneficial antioxidant compounds called rutin were increased more than 10-fold, while another antioxidant flavonoid called quercitrin became newly formed. The researchers then fed rats the sprouted buckwheat for 8 weeks and found significant reductions in levels of dangerous fat build-ups stored in the liver, thanks to the positive impacts of the antioxidants. (26)
How Anti-Nutrients Affect Your Gut
Another problem with anti-nutrients is that once we humans consume them, they can at times create a negative reaction in our gut and can trigger autoimmune responses, including leaky gut syndrome. This is why many people react badly to eating most grains and breads, especially ones that are not sprouted.
Knowing that grain consumption has steadily risen over the past several decades in the American diet and in the diet of most other developed nations too, and that more and more people are feeling sick and tired, I believe that sprouting grains and preparing them in other traditional ways is and extremely important practice that can help many people to feel better.
Nuts, beans, and seeds are also an important part of many adult’s diets, contributing a range of different nutrients. The U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines recommends 4 ounces of nuts and seeds per week for all adults for example. These are also extremely healthy foods with many nutrients to offer, but this is really only the case when you’re able to properly absorb those nutrients.
The reason that humans suffer from indigestion and auto-immune reactions from unsprouted foods is because we aren’t designed to break down antinutrients in plant compounds that lock up or deplete vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. Regularly consuming high amounts of antinutrients can significantly impact your health. Luckily sprouting and soaking seeds breaks down anti-nutrients, makes the seeds more digestible, and unlocks healthy compounds found in plant foods. (5)
What About Fermenting?
Once sprouting is completed, seeds can benefit even more by being fermented. Fermenting foods is a method in which the seeds naturally become fermented by combining them with wild yeast and an acidic liquid. While sprouting doesn’t always require acid, fermenting does.
Fermentation creates probiotics, increases healthy bacteria, helpful enzymes, minerals, vitamins, and predigests foods which are hard for humans to break down in the digestive tract. It’s as if fermented foods are partially digested already, even before you eat them, so you’re body needs to work less to absorb and use the food’s nutrients. Other fermented products like kefir, kimchi, and kombucha are made in a similar way and offer similar health benefits to fermented seeds.
Sprouting and fermenting foods increases phytase, the enzyme that breaks down phytate or phytic acid. Humans produce much less phytase compared to herbivores, so sprouting and fermentation helps us to get the most benefit from our plant foods and to potential avoid nutrient depletion. (6) Some studies have shown that sprouting grains for example can increase phytase activity by 3-fold or even 5-fold. (7)
The most well known type of fermented seeds are the fermented grains found in sourdough breads.
Sourdough bread is made by a long fermentation of dough using naturally occurring lactobacilli and yeasts. In comparison with breads made with cultivated yeast, it usually has a mildly sour taste because of the lactic acid naturally produced by the lactobacilli. Sourdough bread has been in existence for thousands of years before cultivated yeast existed.
Some Foods are Better Together
There is an additional way you can help to digest grains, beans, nuts and seeds better- by eating them with foods that contain certain anti-nutrient blockers. These include foods with calcium, vitamins C and D, and the type of antioxidant known as carotenoids which are found in foods like carrots.
This means, for example, that calcium found naturally in animal fats, bone broths and raw dairy can help counteract anti-nutrient’s effects. Similarly, eating foods rich in vitamin C, like leafy green vegetables or citrus fruits, can counteract phytate and increase iron absorption. And foods rich in vitamin A like sweet potatoes (a form of carotenoids) can also help improve iron absorption.
Soaking vs. Sprouting Grains/Nuts/Seeds/Beans
Both soaking and sprouting are easy processes that you can do yourself at home. The same types of methods described below are used to create sprouted breads, like Ezekiel Bread for example, and fermented sourdough breads.
Wondering what the difference between soaking and sprouting is?
- Soaking – This is when the whole seed/kernel is soaked in liquid for a period of time, sometimes in some sort of acidic liquid. When people speak about soaking seeds/kernels of some sort in acid liquid, they are usually referring to fermenting and using these two phrases interchangeably.
- Sprouting– this takes place when the whole seed/kernel is sprouted, or germinated. After it’s sprouted, it can be dehydrated and ground into flour (which is the case with Ezekiel breads).
Soaking is the process of putting any sproutable food (seeds, grains, nuts or legumes) in water for a period of time, and then sprouting allows the soaked item to germinate further. In other words, you first must soak something before you can sprout it. So sprouting takes place after soaking and further enhances the digestibility of the grains/beans/nuts/seeds.
Most experts agree that soaking is good, but consensus is that foods which are soaked and then sprouted for a period of time become more nutrient dense the longer they are able to sit, sprout, and grow (assuming they have no mold).
How to Soak & Sprout
First you need to get prepared by buying your nuts, seeds, beans, or grains, plus getting together your containers that you’ll soak and sprout in. Keep in mind that the method for soaking and sprouting different nuts, seeds, grains, and beans is the same — only the time required differs depending on the exact kind you’re using.
It’s important to be careful about how you sprout your own seeds, since raw sprouts have the potential to grow bacteria that can potentially be harmful. According to reports, commercially grown raw sprouts have emerged as a significant source of foodborne illness in the United States, for example in the form of pathogenic bacteria Salmonella and E. coli. (23)
Alfalfa, clover, and mung bean sprouts have been involved most in these outbreaks, but all raw sprouts may pose a risk of becoming contaminated, so make sure to only sprout seeds in a very sterile environment.
- When buying nuts/seeds/beans/grains, look for the raw kind and also if possible kinds that are labeled “certified pathogen-free”. Suppliers of this type of seed include Burpee and Sprout People.
- Sometimes even if nuts and seeds are labeled “raw” they have actually been pasteurized and irradiated. So these types will “activate” with soaking and improve in terms of digestibility, but will not physically “sprout.”
- When you have your seeds/kernels ready, rinse seeds for one minute and add enough water to cover them.
- Remove floating debris, especially possibly-contaminated fragments of the shells that may be floating around.
- Sanitize your sprouting containers first to make sure they are completely clean.
Directions to Soak: (24)
- Use raw, unsprouted nuts, grains, seeds, or legumes that haven’t been roasted, blanched, or prepared yet at all in any other way.
- Place them in a bowl covered with several inches of water and cover with a kitchen towel. Let them sit for anywhere between 5-48 hours depending on the kind (refer to the chart below for directions on each specific kind).
- If you’re going to be soaking for more than 12 hours, rinse the grains, nuts, seeds, or beans every 12 hours to change the water. Use fresh water and completely discard the water you had been soaking in previously.
- Do this every 12 hours for up to 48 hours.
- You’ll notice how much they’ve expanded at this point as they’ve soaked up a lot of water- that’s a good thing!
- Keep within the refrigerator and use within the next few days since they now have the potential to spoil.
After the soaking process is completed, then you can choose to sprout your grains, nuts, beans, or seeds.
Directions to Sprout: (25)
- Strain them and leave them out in a dish or shallow bowl, on the counter top or somewhere where they will be exposed to air.
- You can keep them slightly damp by adding just a small amount of water to the bowl/dish, but you don’t need them to be covered in water completely. Try adding just 1-2 tablespoons of water.
- Leave them out for anywhere from 3- 24 hours depending on the kind you’re sprouting (see the chart below).
- Sprouts will vary from 1/8-inch to 2-inches long. When ready, rinse sprouts well, drain, and store in a jar or container.
- Keep in the refrigerator for up to 7 days, but every day you need to rinse the sprouted grains, beans, nuts, or seeds and put them in a fresh bowl. You want to do this to avoid having any mold or harmful bacteria grow.
THE SOAK & SPROUT GUIDE
- Almonds: needs 2-12 hours for soaking. Sprout for 2-3 days if truly raw. The length you choose depends on what you want to use them for; for example, 48 hours of soaking will allow the skins to fall off.
- Walnuts: 4 hours soaking, do not sprout
- Brazil Nuts: 3 hours soaking, do not sprout
- Cashews: 2- 3 hours soaking, do not sprout
- Hazelnuts: 8 hours soaking, do not sprout
- Macadamias: 2 hours soaking, do not sprout
- Pecans: 6 hours soaking, do not sprout
- Pistachios: 8 hours soaking, do not sprout
BEANS & LEGUMES
- Chickpeas: 8-12 hours soaking, 2-3 days for sprouting
- Lentils: 8 hours soaking, 2-3 days for sprouting
- Adzuki Beans: 8 hours soaking, 2-3 days for sprouting
- Black Beans: 8-12 hours soaking, 3 days for sprouting
- White beans: 8 hours soaking, 2-3 days for sprouting
- Mung Beans: 24 hours soaking, 2-5 days for sprouting
- Kidney Beans: 8-12 hours soaking, 5-7 days for sprouting
- Navy Beans: 9-12 hours soaking, 2-3 days for sprouting
- Peas: 9-12 hours soaking, 2-3 days for sprouting
- Buckwheat Grains: 30 minutes-6 hours soaking (time varies), 2-3 days for sprouting
- Amaranth Grains: 8 hours soaking, 1-3 days for sprouting
- Kamut: 7 hours soaking, 2-3 days for sprouting
- Millet: 8 hours soaking, 2-3 days for sprouting
- Oat Groats: 6 hours soaking, 2-3 days for sprouting
- Quinoa: 4 hours soaking, 1-3 days for sprouting
- Wheat Berries: 7 hours soaking, 3-4 days for sprouting
- Wild Rice: 9 hours soaking, 3-5 days for sprouting
- Black Rice: 9 hours soaking, 3-5 days for sprouting
- Radish Seeds: 8-12 hours soaking, 3-4 days for sprouting
- Alfalfa Seeds: 12 hours soaking, 3-5 days for sprouting
- Pumpkin Seeds: 8 hours soaking, 1-2 days for sprouting
- Sesame Seeds: 8 hours soaking, 1-2 days for sprouting
- Sunflower Seeds: 8 hours soaking, 2-3 days for sprouting
To sprout chia, hemp and flaxseeds:
Sprouting small seeds, sometimes called “mucilaginous seeds”, is a bit of a different process than most larger seeds from nuts, grains, beans, and legumes. Smaller seeds form a mucilaginous coat which gives them a gel-like consistency when soaked in water. They can’t be sprouted using the usual method and do better when sprouted in a shallow dish, such as on terracotta, clay or ceramic dishes or trays.
To sprout these seeds:
1. Fill a shallow dish with a slight amount of water. Add about a teaspoon or so of seeds. Let the seeds soak for several minutes then drain them.
2. Sprinkle your seeds back onto the dish, they should be evenly spread and only a single layer. There should be space between seeds to allow them to spread while growing. Cover with clear glass or plastic bowl and place in a sunny spot.
3. Spray the dish twice a day with a small amount of water, trying to keep the surface of the dish wet at all times if possible. The seeds will absorb water and plump up, so keep them moist. The sprouts should take about 3-7 days to appear and will be about 1/2 -3/4 inch high when they’re ready.
Which Nuts & Seeds are Best to Sprout?
- Flax, chia, and hemp seeds are difficult to sprout so most people avoid trying this, however you can sprout these small seeds by following the directions above and using a shallow dish (try a terra cotta drainage dish if you have one) and less water. These seeds absorb water and take on a gel-like texture during the process of sprouting, but this is normal and will result in sprouts within a few days.
- Macadamia nuts and pine nuts also normally don’t need to be sprouted unless the recipe tells you to do so.
- It’s not recommended to sprout red kidney beans as they contain a very toxic lectin called phytohaemagglutinin.
Common Sprouting Concerns
One potential downside to consuming raw sprouts is that the process of germinating seeds can make them susceptible to harmful bacterial growth. That’s why it’s important to be careful about how you prepare and store sprouted foods, and to use them relatively quickly if possible.
Some of the most common reasons you may run into trouble when sprouting seeds are:
- The seeds weren’t rinsed well enough before soaking, which led to bacteria being present on the hulls/shells.
- The water was not changed during the process soon enough or often enough, so seeds were left soaking in contaminated water.
- The seeds were not left out in open air and developed mold.
- The temperature in the room where you left the seeds was either too high or too low.
- The container you used was not sterile and had bacteria of some kind on it.
- The seeds themselves had already been cooked in some way and weren’t truly raw.
Most large producers of sprouted foods test the products to make sure they are not contaminated with harmful bacteria. So, if you choose to sprout your own foods, always take extra care to follow these guidelines when eating raw sprouts to make sure that you get to enjoy all the benefits of sprouted foods.