As people become increasingly conscious of the connection between their diets and health, the environment, and animal welfare, more and more are looking for interesting and tasty ways to improve their diets.
Alongside this demand has been a rise in popularity for sprouted food. This versatile category includes a range of options, from sprouted wheat bread to salads containing sprouted lentils and peas, to sprouted nuts.
But how exactly does sprouting work? In short, exposing seeds to moisture and warmth starts the process of gemination in which the organism begins to grow. These sprouts can be collected before their leaves develop, sold as sprouted grains, and eaten whole.
And the Chinese were on to something: research has found that almost all of the nutrients in sprouted grains can be fully available for the body to absorb, and that the sprouting process can lead to higher concentrations of various antioxidants.
“When you think about the fact that an entire tree could grow from one nut or seed, you realize how powerful sprouted foods are,” says Brooke Rewa, founder and chief executive of Goodmylk, which soaks and sprout nuts and seeds before turning them into plant-based milk. “Without water that nut or seed is just one little nut or seed. But you add water, and it has the potential to grow into a giant food source, and by sprouting it you're unlocking that potential and getting the benefits from that lifeforce.”
Experts say sprouted grains may also be better for people who are sensitive to digesting grains, as the germinating process breaks down some of the starch, which also boosts the percentage of nutrients.
Indeed, sprouted grains have been found to have digestive benefits. They can mimic the body’s production of enzymes during digestion, which can degrade lectins. Lectins are proteins found in all plants, and can sometimes cause digestive issues when we eat them.
Among the proliferation of sprouted foods is a growth in sprouted wheat bread. As well as the health benefits of sprouted flour, there are other incentives for bakers.
“For bakers, sprouted flour saves kneading and proofing time because of the high enzyme content,” says Peggy Sutton, founder and president of the To Your Health Sprouted Bread and Flour Co.
Sutton was early to the sprouted food trend, when in 2005, she read about sprouting and decided to give it a go.
“I bought some wheatberries and sprouted them in a few mason jars in my kitchen. I then dried and milled the sprouts into flour and baked a loaf of bread,” she says. “The taste was phenomenal, and my body recognized the bread differently - no bloating and increased energy.”
Since then, she says, “My business has grown from a cottage industry in my kitchen to the world's largest producer of organic sprouted products.”
Now, To Your Health sprouts 28 different grains, seeds, legumes, and nuts, with which it makes organic sprouted grain flours.
For Jenny Marino, founder of Wisconsin-based Angelic Bakehouse, the sprouting process involves soaking seven whole grains – red wheat berries, quinoa, barley, oat groats, rye berries, amaranth and millets – in water.
“Once sprouted, rather than drying and processing them into flour, we fresh press the sprouted grains and their goodness right into our dough,” she says.
Another growing area within the sprouted food industry is nuts – often referred to as “activated” nuts. A rapidly growing snack, sprouted nuts could become a staple in the $1300 billion nut industry.
All nuts are a great source of macronutrients, including healthy fats. However, nuts also contain the phytonutrient, phytate, which, although nutritionally beneficial, is thought to reduce the amount of some minerals our body can absorb, including iron, zinc and calcium.
There are claims that activating nuts – soaking them in water, as with other sprouted foods including seeds and grains – can somewhat counteract the effects of phytate and allow the body to obtain more nutrients from the nuts. However, researchers have not yet found a robust body of evidence to suggest this is the case. Nor is there research to support claims that activated nuts are kinder to our digestive system.
Because there’s more research into the health benefits of sprouted grains, sprouted nut manufacturers hope their industry will also eventually be bolstered by rigorous science. Rich Pauwels, co-founder of Rich Nuts, hopes to find a researcher who will get to the bottom of the health benefits of sprouted nuts.
“Sadly, there’s not a lot of research on sprouted nuts at this point. There is quite a bit on sprouted grains, and the information we’ve been relying upon in this industry at this point has been borrowed from grain research,” he says.
When it comes to almonds specifically, Nate Jackson, founder of Nate's Raw Harvest, has a warning. All California almonds are heat-pasteurized or treated with a fumigant, as required by law since 2007, to remove bacteria and prevent foodborne illnesses. One paper suggests that this could affect the nut’s nutritional value, but research is limited.
“If you want truly raw almonds, you want to look for Spanish or Italian almonds,” says Jackson. “Nate's Raw Harvest exclusively uses organic Spanish almonds for this reason.”
Still, Jackson doesn’t think it’s all or nothing: “In the end, if the sprouted food can be eaten without being baked or roasted then that is what to look for when grocery shopping. If it was baked or roasted after being sprouted then it won't have as many enzymes or nutrients, but still beneficial over the non-sprouted versions.”
In the meantime, manufacturers say the nut’s taste, and the crunch, is vastly improved by the sprouting process.
“Following the sprouting or activation process of the nut or seed, the product is dried at low temperatures (around 110 to 115 Fahrenheit) to zero moisture,” says Peter and Patricia Houchin, owners of Blue Mountain Organics. “This reduces moisture typically found in raw products, concentrating the flavor and imparting a crispness similar to roasting.”
Nuts destined for Daily Crunch Snacks go through a “Soak-Sprout-Dehydrate” process.
“Our nuts are dehydrated below 150 Fahrenheit, so we remove the water but not all the good stuff,” says co-founder Diane Orley, who has been sprouting nuts since discovering the process in India 15 years ago.
Over the time, she has seen sprouted nuts soar in popularity.
“We’ve found that sprouted or activated is already mainstream in Australia, India and the UK. In the US, we see popularity in places that lead food trends, in particular LA and San Francisco,” she says.
Laurel Orley, co-founder of Daily Crunch Snacks, attributes the growing recognition of sprouted produce to the rising popularity of sprouted grains for bread.
“There is an educational barrier and component to this. A lot of people do not know what the word ‘sprouted’ means, or the health benefits it represents and the different taste it creates, compared to raw or roasted nuts.”
That’s why, Orley says, she ensures Daily Crunch Snacks packaging helps educate consumers about its sprouting process. But there are also benefits to the lack of awareness.
“This category is a blank canvas and we get to build it,” says Dan Stephenson, chief operating officer of Daily Crunch Snacks. “Snacking has become a fourth meal in the United States. People are desperate for healthy and tasty alternatives to the junk food that has populated snack aisles. We have a massive opportunity to be a key player in that lifestyle shift.”
But with massive opportunity comes responsibility. While the sprouting process might sound simple, care must be taken to ensure it’s done properly, as the germination process comes with a food safety risk. The conditions under which sprouts are produced are also ideal for the growth of pathogens, according to the FDA.
Like other manufacturers, Alex Malinsky, chief executive of Windy City Organics, which produces sprouted nut and seed butters and raw chocolate snacks, has strict guidelines to ensure safety.
“Whenever you introduce water into your production process it increases the risk for pathogen growth,” he says. “This is why we have processes and strict protocols in place to minimize any risk of contamination. After soaking in clean, filtered water, all sprouted nuts and seeds are thoroughly dried to reduce their moisture content. We give special attention to how we process our sprouted ingredients - following strict sanitation protocol, using only reverse osmosis filtered water for soaking, and dehydrating at low temperatures to reduce moisture while preserving nutrients.”
Manufacturers also share a feeling of responsibility for educating consumers about the sprouting process, and the health benefits that come with sprouted foods. Pauwels, a former firefighter, tries to spread the word about sprouted grains and the importance of a healthy diet after he struggled to find healthy food when he was working long shifts.
“We have become so reliant on our grab-n-go culture that we don’t stop to think about what we’re putting in our bodies, he says. “We live in a land of high processed, over-sanitized, chemical-infused food products and fast food filled with artificial ingredients. I feel it’s my responsibility to educate as many people as I can. One of the things I struggled with as a paramedic was trying to save someone who was having a heart attack or some other ailment that could have been avoided with a healthier diet.”
Pauwels believes sprouted grains will eventually become a normal part of our diets. As manufacturers continue to innovate and hack foods, sometimes, as is the case with sprouted grains, we’re starting to see the value in taking things back to basics and putting our trust in ancient wisdom.