When it comes to stuff that just sounds healthy, sprouted grains are right up there with wheatgrass and flaxseed.
If you have heard of sprouted grains, it was likely in the context of them being extremely nutritious. “There is a general perception that sprouted products are better for you overall,” Lin Carson, Ph.D., food scientist and CEO of BAKERpedia, a free online encyclopedia for commercial bakers, tells SELF.
Perhaps you’ve got a friend who swears they can digest them more easily than regular whole grains. Maybe you yourself have picked up a loaf of Ezekiel bread at the grocery store under the assumption it was healthy AF, and been pleased to discover that it makes for a super-satisfying piece of toast.
Or maybe you’ve just noticed them popping up all over in place of regular whole grains (sprinkled on a salad, served as a side dish, milled into flour, made into pasta), and wondered what all the fuss is about—as well as whether they’re worth the extra buck. As Carson puts it, “A lot of people are selling the story that sprouted is healthier.”
So, how true is that story? Are sprouted grains the nutrition powerhouse they would seem to be? And are they worth your time and money?
What sprouted grains are, exactly
Let’s start with a little bit—really and truly just a little bit, I promise—of basic plant science.
Regular whole grains are actually just seeds harvested from an adult cereal plant (like wheat, barley, or oats), from which another whole new plant can grow. That means that they’re packed with all the goodness necessary for that seed to germinate and grow into a wee little seedling and then a very grown-up plant. But until they get the magic ingredients they need—heat and water—to start opening up, they stay dormant. (Sounds weirdly like myself on a first date—closed off until I’ve been warmed up and I’ve had something to drink.)
Sprouted grains are simply whole grain seeds that have just begun to germinate, and then are harvested before they can grow into a plant, Mark E. Sorrells, Ph.D., professor of plant breeding and genetics and founder of the Cornell Small Grains Project at Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, tells SELF.
Making the seed sprout involves getting the heat, moisture, and length of time (usually a few days) juuust right in order to trigger the seed to crack open and start growing a baby root at one end and a tiny shoot at the other, Sorrells explains. Then you stop the germination process by either drying out the grains or grinding them up into a wet mash, Sorrells explains. (Dried sprouts can be stored for later or milled into flour, while the wet mash can be frozen or used immediately to make a product like bread or tortillas, Carson says.)
So, are sprouted grains really any healthier?
If people are going to all of this trouble to have sprouted grains, they must be better for you, right? The answer is maybe.
Here’s the theory about why sprouted grains are healthier than their un-sprouted counterparts. The goal of the sprouting process is to basically trick the seed into thinking it’s time to become a plant, and then hitting the pause button. While this is kind of a cruel joke to play on a poor little seed if you think about it, it’s a pretty clever way to eke a little more goodness out the grain, potentially. Sprouting basically makes the nutrients stuffed inside the seed more readily accessible to a growing plant—as well as, it turns out, the human body.
When it’s time to germinate, a seed releases enzymes that start to break its nutrients down into building blocks that will help it grow into a plant. The cool thing is that these enzymes are essentially beginning the work of digestion for us, Sorrells says. “The enzymes are cutting the carbs and proteins and lipids down into smaller molecules,” Carson explains.
The complex carbohydrates, like starch, begin to break down into sugars; the proteins start to break down into amino acids and peptides; and the fats gets broken down into fatty acids, Sorrells explains.
This is why some people find that they have an easier time digesting sprouted grains, like sprouted wheat (or products made from it) than regular whole grains. “A lot of people find them so much more tummy friendly,” Carson says. This makes sense: the plant enzymes are making it so our own digestive enzymes have to do less work. (Pretty clutch, right?)
The thing is that while there is indeed research showing that sprouting can increase the digestibility of the starch and protein in some grains, it’s kind of an unpredictable process. How much breakdown happens varies tremendously depending on the seed you’re starting with, the sprouting conditions, and how long the seed is allowed to sprout for, Lynn James, M.S., R.D.N., L.D.N., senior extension educator at the Food, Families & Health and Food Safety & Quality teams at Penn State Extension, tells SELF. And the variability in the sprouting process leads to an equal amount of variability in the increased digestibility of the grain, James says.
So when it comes to whether sprouted grains will be easier for you yourself to digest? “It’s entirely possible,” Sorrells says—but also tricky to say. In addition to the sprouting variability, “No two humans are alike, and people have different sensitivities and [digestive] systems,” Sorrells says. “It’s hard to know until you actually try it.” But also, Carson points out, if you have no trouble digesting regular bread then you may not even notice a difference at all.
Okay, so what about the nutritional value? Is it higher in sprouted grains? In theory, potentially, yeah. In addition to breaking down some of those big energy reserves inside the seed, the sprouting process may increase the micronutrient content of the grain. For instance, many grains contain a substance called phytic acid that binds to certain minerals (like iron, calcium, and zinc), making them less bioavailable to us because we don’t have the enzymes needed to break phytic acid down, Sorrells explains. Sprouting can actually begin to break down some of that phytic acid for us, making the minerals more available, some studies have found. Sprouting may also increase the levels of some vitamins, like vitamin E and B.
But IRL, it is again tricky to make hard-and-fast determinations about the nutritional advantages sprouting leads to.
Which vitamin levels might go up and to what degree really depends not just on the grain but the exact sprouting conditions, James says. This is pretty clear when you look at the studies collected in a recent meta-review. Some show sizable increases, while others found more moderate, or zero changes in vitamin content after sprouting And crucially, as James notes, there is a lack of human studies showing that this increased bioaccessibility actually leads to increased vitamin and mineral absorption.
A final health-related reason many people prefer sprouted grain bread (or bagels or english muffins) is that these products are more likely to be low in or free of added sugar.
Sprouting can cut the natural bitterness of some grains by imparting a natural sweetness, thanks to the breakdown of starches into sugars, Carson explains. So while regular whole wheat bread, for example, can taste a little bitter without any additional sweetener, sprouted grain products “will have more of a sweet flavor naturally without having to add in sugar,” Carson says. But that’s not always the case, obviously, so check the ingredients label if that’s important to you. (Just remember that added sugars are not necessarily worse for you than naturally occurring sugars.)
So, are sprouted grains worth it?
This one’s pretty easy. If you love ‘em, hell yeah. Otherwise, nah.
Sprouted grain products can cost a good bit more than their unsprouted counterparts (which makes sense considering the extra time, space, and resources they take to produce). “They’re usually much more expensive,” Lin says. (Think a $ 6 loaf of bread instead of $ 3.50, for example, although of course it varies by brand.) And, obviously, while sprouting grains yourself at home mostly involves waiting around, it does require time and attention. If those couple extra bucks or minutes are totally worth it to you, then consider this your permission to go for it.
But if you aren’t a fan of the taste or price (or effort, if you DIY), there’s really no reason to take the sprouted route. “Your personal preference is key,” Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Culinary Dietitian Marisa Moore, M.B.A. R.D.N.. L.D., tells SELF. If you feel like you’re sacrificing the enjoyability of your food for the sake of a little bit extra nutritional value, it’s really not at all worth it. “There’s no pressure to make all of your grains sprouted,” Moore says. “If it’s not something you enjoy, skip it!”
Consider just opting for the more wallet-friendly, low-effort option that gives you the best of both worlds in terms of nutritional benefits and taste. “If you don’t like sprouted, I say just go with regular whole grains and whole grain bread,” Carson says. “They’re basically just as good.”
If you do want to give sprouted grains a go, there are lots of ways to experiment with them. Try subbing them in for regular whole grains—as a side dish, sprinkled on a salad, as a grain bowl base—wherever you don’t mind a more pronounced taste and texture, Moore says. Maybe the easiest way to hop aboard the sprouted grain train is to buy sprouted grain bread. “If you like hearty whole grain breads, you’ll probably enjoy sprouted ones too,” Moore says. She likes to toast it and use it as a sturdy base for avocado or nut butter. “It holds up well to lots of toppings,” Moore says.
Another suggestion? Enjoy grains in all their forms. “I still love regular bread,” Moore says.