Remember back in elementary school when you stuck kidney beans in a jar with a damp paper towel and watched them grow little green tails?
Well, the science experiment is back. Just take a look around your health food store. You can now buy sprouted chia seeds, beans and almonds to replace your regular old staples. You may even find pastas, breads and tortilla chips made from sprouted flours. Go ahead and Google “sprouted grains” and you’ll find countless videos of DIY-ers teaching you how to make sprouts at home, too.
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The sprouts industry is growing fast. One research firm projects that sprouted grains sales could reach $250 million by 2018, compared to the $30 million per year that they’re bringing in today.
But are there really benefits to eating these little shoots?
Why Sprouted Foods Might Be Better for You
It turns out turning regular old grains into sprouts can have some pretty intriguing nutritional benefits. When seeds hang out in water, they germinate, causing their outer layers to split open, allowing a young shoot to blossom. When this happens, the newly emerging sprout consumes some of the grain’s starches, thereby altering the food’s nutritional content, says nutritionist Alexandra Caspero, R.D., owner of Delicious Knowledge nutrition coaching. The same is true for sprouted seeds, legumes or nuts.
“The clients that I do have sprouting their grains report better digestion.”
Here’s the good part: Because there’s less starch in each sprouted grain, the proportion of protein and fiber within each seedling becomes higher, she says. That means they automatically have a lower glycemic index than their non-sprouted counterparts. In one Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism study, sprouted-grain breads triggered a lower blood sugar response and greater influx of GLP-1 — a satiety hormone — in the body, compared to both white and whole-grain breads with the same carbohydrate content.
Meanwhile, sprouting grains also causes their levels of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin D, to increase, explains Gang Guo, director of wheat research and quality for Ardent Mills, and a member of the American Association of Cereal Chemists. Sprouted rye even increases its folate content up to 3.8-fold, according to research in The Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry.
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Soaking and sprouting grains also partially degrades counterproductive anti-nutrients, like phytic acid. Phytic acid can inhibit absorption of some minerals including iron and zinc, Caspero says. That’s why sprouting is beneficial for people like vegetarians who are low in iron or zinc (which are both more abundant in animal-based foods).
Soaking whole grains and legumes also degrades another anti-nutrient called raffinose. A carbohydrate that produces gas in the lower intestines, raffinose is the culprit responsible for the, “Beans, Beans, the Magical Fruit,” song, Guo says. “The clients that I do have sprouting their grains report better digestion and a decrease in side effects of eating too many legumes, like gas,” Caspero adds.
You Might Be Sprouting Bacteria, Too
Though there are many benefits to sprouted foods, it can be risky to start growing your own sprouts at home. “Sprouting increases the nutrients but also potential toxins,” Caspero says. “Raw foodists tend to sprout beans and grains to make them edible without cooking, but there are some cautions to eating them raw.”
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While eating any produce raw carries some risk, sprouted foods have a bit more baggage. The warm and humid conditions in which seeds need to germinate to grow sprouts are also ideal for growing bacteria, including salmonella, listeria and E. coli, says U.S. Food and Drug Administration spokesperson Jason Strachman Miller.
For that reason, the FDA has issued two guidance documents to help the food industry produce sprouted foods more safely. “While many sprouters have adopted the recommendations in the FDA’s Sprout Guides, that is not universal and outbreaks associated with sprouts have continued to occur,” Miller says. (Between 1996 and 2014, more than 40 reported foodborne illness outbreaks have been linked to raw and lightly cooked sprouts.) “The FDA is now developing a Produce Safety regulation that would make many of the recommendations in our sprout guidance mandatory for most producers,” he says.
Still, if you choose to sprout yourself, you can all but eliminate any risk of food-borne illnesses by following our super-sanitary guide.
How to Make Sprouts at Home
When it comes to sprouting, you have a lot of options. Raw almonds, black beans, buckwheat, mung beans, groats, lentils, quinoa, wild rice, wheat berries, millet, barley, amaranth, kamut, radish seeds, alfalfa, adzuki beans and chickpeas, are all good options, according to Caspero. However, any nuts that have been pasteurized and irradiated, even if they are listed as raw, will not sprout. You also can’t sprout flax seeds, she says.
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The University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources recommends buying certified pathogen-free seed, such as those from Burpee Seed Co. and Sprout People. Once you’ve chosen your seeds, here’s how to sprout them.
Heat your seeds on the stove for five minutes in a solution of three percent hydrogen peroxide, preheated to 140 degrees, recommends UC Davis. You can purchase the hydrogen peroxide from your local drug store. Use your kitchen thermometer to achieve the right temp.
Rinse the seeds in running tap water for one minute, and place them in a sanitized sprouting container. A mason jar will work well, Caspero says. To sanitize the jar, soaked in 3⁄4 cup of bleach per gallon of water for at least five minutes, then rinse it with clean water.
Fill the sprouting container with enough water that it covers the seeds, plus one inch. Skim off and throw away any floating seeds and debris, the UC Davis guide recommends.
Cover the mouth of the jar with a piece of cheesecloth, and screw the outside ring of the lid onto the jar to secure the cheesecloth, Caspero says.
Place the container away from areas of food preparation, pets, and busy areas of the house. Depending on what you are sprouting, the soaking times will vary anywhere from three to 12 hours, she says.
Now drain, pouring the water out through the cheesecloth. Then run fresh water through the lid and shake to rinse thoroughly. Drain and repeat again. Continue to rinse and drain two times a day until the food is done sprouting. The sprouts should be ready in one to four days.
Enjoy sprouted foods within two to three days. Cook them before eating to kill any bacteria that may have snuck in during the sprouting process, she says.
For more information on growing sprouted foods safely, check out the FDA’s guide.
Originally posted March 2015. Updated August 2015.