Sprouted Grains as a Functional Food

My name is Kyle Fluegge. I work as the Director of Public Health Research and Evaluation for the Institute of Health and Environmental Research (USA), a nonprofit research group that studies the connections (good, bad and ugly) between the environment and human health. I am an agricultural economist with a background in public health. For years, I have been interested in the use of sprouted grains as a functional food to promote health and wellness. I first started sprouting my own foods as a personal hobby about eight years ago. It was my first full year away from graduate school and I had much more free time on my hands to explore the topic. My favorite foods to sprout at that time were buckwheat and lentils because they were fairly fail-proof. As I became more comfortable, I also soaked, sprouted and dehydrated cereal grains and ground them into fresh flour. However, this effort is a lot of work and requires much attention to the process to ensure safe consumption. 

The purpose of this blog series is to take you on a journey with me as we discover the benefits of consuming sprouted grains. There is a lot that is misunderstood and hard to explain. After all, sprouted grain flour looks no different from conventional flour. You may be familiar with sprouting, have consumed sprouted foods, have absolutely no knowledge about it or believe it is not worth the effort. Regardless of your background or belief, I hope you will explore the topic with me and perhaps learn something new or refresh your interest in learning about and consuming sprouted foods.

According to the Whole Grains Council, historically, the occurrence of sprouted grains was a happenstance that resulted from leaving harvested dried grains exposed to the weather until such time as they were needed. These days, however, consumers, businesses, and researchers alike are taking an interest in the agricultural production method beyond its occurrence as an after-thought of harvest abundance to a present staple of a nutritious modern diet.

This blog post series aims to understand more about sprouted grains and their role in a healthy diet to help consumers make informed decisions about their consumption.  The main questions being asked and addressed will include (1) identifying some of the changes that occur from sprouting grain and whether these changes confer any nutritional advantage over unsprouted grain; (2) the long-term impact of sprouted grain consumption on human gastrointestinal function and microbiome colonization versus traditional, unsprouted whole grain diet; and (3) the ratio of sprouting affected by production processes, including commonly applied pesticides & herbicides, environmental conditions and use of genetically modified inputs. In this post, we will consider the first question.

Germination of grain induces a multitude of biochemical changes. Germination up to three days was shown to reduce an enzyme that breaks down the fiber components of cereal grains (1). One fiber, called arabinoxylan, serves a chief structural role within plant cells, but it is also a potent reservoir of antioxidants that contribute to the fiber’s wide array of suspected health benefits (2). One major component of this fiber is ferulic acid. The health benefits of ferulic acid are numerous, including antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, antimicrobial benefits as well as offering protection of the liver, anti-carcinogenic and reduces the occurrence of blood clots, among other benefits (3). A slightly longer period of sprouting wheat generated a 2-fold increase in the total oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) concentration (4), a scientifically valid measure of a food’s antioxidant concentration to prevent free radicals from attacking healthy cells. The figure shows how the increase in ORAC levels in sprouted and unsprouted wheat compares with 100-gram equivalents of other raw foods. Sprouting also induces generation of resistant starches in wheat that can serve as natural prebiotics that can modify microbiome colonization if consumed regularly.(5)

Orac of Selected Food

Additionally, germination of barley can enhance functional components of the final bread product (6).  Germination for 24 hours of barley doubled the levels of  gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a main inhibitory neurotransmitter that is believed to exert beneficial effects on food satiety (7) as well as reducing feelings of anxiety (8). This suggests that consumption of foods with germinated grain could be a subtle approach to addressing physical (via improved weight control) and mental (via better stress and cognitive control) pathways that consumption of unsprouted grain does not offer. Germination for 24 hours also yielded a superior bread-making performance, improved shelf-life, and sensory attributes like flavor and overall acceptability (6), as the germination breaks down starches into simple sugars. 

In addition to positively impacting antioxidant levels, sprouting largely reduces the antinutrient levels of grains, in particular degrading phytate levels that often render minerals like calcium, iron and zinc less absorbable in the body. This makes the nutrients offered in grain products more bioavailable. However, the sprouting conditions, such as duration of time grains spend soaking in water prior to germination as well as the pH level and temperature of the water itself, matter to a substantial degree in the phytate elimination actually achieved. (9)

In our next post, we will consider the impact of sprouted grain consumption on human gastrointestinal function and microbiome colonization and report results of our experimental work. Much is yet to be known in this area, however, burgeoning consumer interest in the impacts of sprouted grain consumption is increasing our ability to measure and monitor its influence as a functional food ingredient to improve human health parameters. 

Kyle Fluegge, PhD MPH

Director of Public Health Research and Evaluation
Institute of Health and Environmental Research
USA

References:

  1. Olaerts, H., & Courtin, C. M. (2018). Impact of preharvest sprouting on endogenous hydrolases and technological quality of wheat and bread: a review. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, 17 (3), 698-713.
  2. Zannini, E., Bravo Núñez, Á., Sahin, A. W., & Arendt, E. K. (2022). Arabinoxylans as Functional Food Ingredients: A Review. Foods (Basel, Switzerland), 11(7), 1026. https://doi.org/10.3390/foods11071026
  3. Kumar, N., & Pruthi, V. (2014). Potential applications of ferulic acid from natural sources. Biotechnology Reports, 4, 86-93.
  4. Kim, M. J., Kwak, H. S., & Kim, S. S. (2018). Effects of germination on protein, γ-aminobutyric acid, phenolic acids, and antioxidant capacity in wheat. Molecules, 23(9), 2244.
  5. Marti, A., Cardone, G., Pagani, M. A., & Casiraghi, M. C. (2018). Flour from sprouted wheat as a new ingredient in bread-making. LWT, 89, 237-243.
  6. Al-Ansi, W., Zhang, Y., Abdulrazzak Ali Alkawry, T., Al-Adeeb, A., Ali Mahdi, A., Ali Al-Maqtari,
    Q., Ahmed, A., Sajid Mushtag, B., Fan, M., Li, Y., Qian, H., Yang, L., Pan, Q., Wang, L. (2022). Influence of germination on bread-making behaviors, functional and shelf-life properties, and overall quality of highland barley bread. LWT, 159, 113200. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lwt.2022.113200
  7. Nakamura, U., Nohmi, T., Sagane, R., Hai, J., Ohbayashi, K., Miyazaki, M., Yamatsu, A., Kim, M., & Iwasaki, Y. (2022). Dietary Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) Induces Satiation by Enhancing the Postprandial Activation of Vagal Afferent Nerves. Nutrients, 14(12), 2492. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu14122492
  8. Abdou, A. M., Higashiguchi, S., Horie, K., Kim, M., Hatta, H., & Yokogoshi, H. (2006). Relaxation and immunity enhancement effects of γ‐aminobutyric acid (GABA) administration in humans. Biofactors, 26(3), 201-208.
  9. Elliott, H., Woods, P., Green, B. D., & Nugent, A. P. (2022). Can sprouting reduce phytate and improve the nutritional composition and nutrient bioaccessibility in cereals and legumes?. Nutrition Bulletin, 47(2), 138-156.

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