All kinds of items at the health food store seem to have suddenly "sprouted", including whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils and chickpeas. But are they really more nutritious than non-sprouted plant foods? Read on to learn the basics about the trend.
Every sprouted food is a type of seed
When you think of seeds, you probably think of sunflower, pumpkin and chia seeds. But pulses—like chickpeas, split peas and black eyed peas—are also seeds. Technically, quinoa, oats and nuts qualify as well. All of these seeds can be sprouted. But what exactly does that mean?
Whether or not you have a green thumb, you're probably familiar with how seeds work. They contain the raw materials that grow into a new plant when temperature and moisture conditions are just right. Sprouted foods are essentially just that: Seeds that have started to grow. To stop those baby plants from growing even more, the seeds are either dried or mashed and added to other products.
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Sprouted foods come in many forms
There are dried foods like sprouted almonds, and breads made with sprouted grains, seeds and beans. Sprouted grains are also mashed and rolled into tortillas and wraps. You can even find powders to add to smoothies or oatmeal. And while plenty of processed sprouted products are on the market (such as pretzels and cereal), be sure stick to ones that contain only natural ingredients.
They may be extra-nutritious
Seeds contain compounds that keep them from sprouting until conditions are right. But once a seed sprouts, those compounds are canceled out by a surge in enzymes. Those same enzymes make the nutrients in the seed more available, so the baby plant has the energy it needs to grow. The theory is that when we eat sprouted foods, their nutrients are more bio-available to us as well, and easier to digest.
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The research to date is promising
There aren't a ton of studies on sprouted foods, but the ones that exist seem to support the idea that they pack an extra nutritional punch. Research has shown that sprouting boosts the antioxidant levels of brown rice, amaranth and millet, for example. And a study published in the journal Plant Foods for Human Nutrition discovered that the fiber content of various types of brown rice increased by 6 to 13% after sprouting.
DIY sprouting can be risky
There are a lot of videos online that teach you how to sprout at home. But DIY sprouting may be dangerous unless you really know what you’re doing. For example, some seeds are treated with harmful chemicals, which get broken down in sprouting conditions. What's more, the conditions required for sprouting happen to also be ideal for growing bacteria that can make you very ill, like salmonella, E. coli, and listeria. If you do experiment with DIY sprouting, I recommend cooking the final product (think sprouted lentil soup, or sprouted chickpea burgers). Otherwise, I advise sticking with brands like Food for Life and Go Raw, which have safe sprouting techniques down pat.
Cynthia Sass is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and consultant for the New York Yankees. See her full bio here.