Soaking, sprouting and fermenting…is it really necessary?

It goes without saying that the internet will take you to some pretty interesting places. Drinking charcoal, adding grass-fed butter to your morning coffee and Blue Majik-everything are just a few of the highly Instagrammable wellness fads taking over our feeds.

On the other end of the wellness spectrum are the traditionalists. They are the ones growing their own food, making their own sauerkraut and soaking their grain flours. Nourishing Traditions is their food bible and mason jars their raison d’etre.

You’ve probably noticed that your local market has been invaded by all manner of sprouted grains and fermented food. So what’s the deal?

Any trip down the Google vortex of healthy eating will uncover posts admonishing you to soak, sprout and ferment your plant foods lest you fall prey to ‘anti-nutrients’. Wait a second…just as I am getting down with a more plant-centred diet, this dietitian is going to tell me they have ‘anti-nutrients??’ Not to worry…the internet is making a mountain out of this mole hill. Let’s dive in, shall we?

Learning the Lingo

Soaking, sprouting and fermenting are sort of a continuum. If you cook with dried beans or make your own nut milks, you know that soaking helps soften dried plant foods, improve the texture of the finished recipe and make them easier to digest (have you ever tried to eat a dried chickpea??).

Soaking involves placing the seed or grain into water for anywhere from 20 minutes to 24 hours. Soaking removes enzyme inhibitors that allow you to actually digest the protein in the food you are eating, removes bitter compounds that leach into the soaking water and improves texture and cooking times.

Sprouting takes soaking one step further, and involves using moisture and ambient temperatures to coax seeds from storage phase to growth phase. Typically, you soak the seed/bean/grain for a while. Next, you proceed with daily rinsing (2-3 times a day) with fresh water and let the seeds sit on your counter for a few days until little sprouts appear.

Once soaking removes the enzyme inhibitors, a warm, moist environment allows the enzymes present in the seed to start transforming storage nutrients like starch into sugars that allow a plant to grow. If this sounds like planting seeds to grow a garden, it is…except you aren’t using soil! Sprouting will allow you to eat certain foods without cooking them because the nutrients will be more digestible and bio-available.

Fermentation also uses moisture and temperature but no sprouting occurs. Many of our favourite foods are produced via fermentation. Like sourdough bread. And wine. And kombucha. We are surrounded by beneficial microbes like yeasts, bacteria and moulds. Using salt to keep the bad bugs at bay, ambient (naturally occurring) microbes transform food as they ferment (essentially live, eat and excrete…although that sounds grosser than it really is!).

Um…you promised you would talk about anti-nutrients!

One of the main reasons cited for soaking, sprouting and fermenting is the reduction of ‘anti-nutrients’ found in plant foods. It’s kind of hard to imagine that something called an anti-nutrient is not scary…but it’s not. These bitter compounds are thought to be part of the survival mechanism of seeds, so they can survive digestion, get pooped out and still propagate their own species. These survival mechanisms are why we grind flax seeds and shell hemp hearts: that hard shell passes through us undigested unless we grind, crack or otherwise expose the nutritious core of the seed.

There is both biological truth here and internet hyperbole. For example, you could not survive on dried beans alone. Our guts cannot break them down well enough and the lectins and protease inhibitors they contain would make it near impossible to get all the nutrition you need. And you’d probably break your teeth…so there’s that.

However, when we soak and cook these foods, these compounds are deactivated or reduced and aren’t really an issue. So you definitely need to soak and boil beans…or sprout them well if wanting to consume them raw for some reason. This is also why any of my recipes that call for chickpea flour require that you soak the flour…because chickpea flour is made from dried chickpeas.

Unfortunately, the very presence of these compounds drives some people to say that these foods are bad. Which is crazy. Time and time again, research confirms that a diet filled with high fibre plant foods is the best way to eat. Cooked beans are insanely nutrient-dense; it is worth noting that ‘anti-nutrients’ tend to occur in mineral rich foods and the internet picture of anti-nutrients robbing your body of minerals like an evil sponge is incorrect.

And BTW…while no one rags on fibre, getting a ton of it can also bind nutrients and prevent their absorption. In fact, binding ability is how fibre helps lower your cholesterol levels (it binds bile salts, made of cholesterol, and carries them on out the poop shoot). So while you shouldn’t go downing two cups of wheat bran a day, you definitely need to eat more fibre.

As I talked about briefly in my book, Un-Junk Your Diet, research is also suggesting that these so-called ‘anti-nutrients’ have potential benefits as well. The tannins in your much beloved tea? While, yes, they can bind a little bit of calcium or iron, they are also potentially protective against cancer. And the phytates found in grains and beans may improve blood sugar response and fight inflammation. If you want to delve more deeply into the subject of anti-nutrients and why you shouldn’t be afraid of them, this is a great review.

Should I go the extra step and soak?

Good nutrition is about variety. Some nutrients are better preserved when you eat foods raw. Others, more bioavailable in cooked food. Soaking, sprouting and fermentation should be viewed with the same lens.

You do NOT need to worry about the ‘anti-nutrient’ compounds in food when you prepare food as we have learned to do already. You don’t eat grain flours or beans raw…you cook with them.

But what about nuts and seeds? If you are on a 100% plant-based diet and eat a lot of nuts and seeds, ‘activating’ them with a four-hour soak or sprout isn’t a bad idea…but it’s also not necessary 100% of the time if you eat them, again, in a variety of ways: raw, soaked in nut mylks and cheese, sprouted in granolas and cooked in your favourite dishes.

Fermentation should totally be part of your life…but no, you shouldn’t ferment 100% of your veg! Fermentation makes food delicious and it helps introduce more happy microbes into your diet. (Want to know why microbes are awesome? See, like, everything I have written on the Bio-K+ blog).

So there you have it…soaking, sprouting and fermentation are awesome. But you don’t have to painstakingly soak and sprout every single thing you eat. Don’t let the internet fear mongers have you doubting plant foods because of ‘anti-nutrients’. If we just called them what they really are, ‘plant defense compounds’, they probably wouldn’t get such a bad rap.

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