Just how important is it to ferment, sprout or soak things like grains, nuts and seeds? Read on to find out the difference between each, how a diet that includes sprouted and fermented food can help support gut health, and the science behind anti-nutrients.
It goes without saying that the internet will take you to some pretty interesting places. Any trip down the Google wellness vortex will uncover ‘traditional’ food advocates admonishing you to soak, sprout and ferment your plant foods lest you fall prey to ‘anti-nutrients’. But is it legit? Let this plant-based dietitian – who literally wrote the book on plant-based nutrition – fill you in on everything you need to know, including whether you should be eating sprouted and fermented foods. I’ve even got fermented food recipes for you!
- Difference between sprouting and fermenting
- Benefits of sprouted and fermented plant foods
- What is an anti-nutrient?
- 5 sprouted and fermented plant foods you should eat
- How to soak grains, nuts and seeds
- FAQs about sprouting and fermentation
Difference between sprouting and fermenting
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. Soaking also lowers fermentable FODMAP carbohydrates so folks following a low FODMAP protocol for IBS may do better with some soaked and sprouted foods (but always check on the MONASH low FODMAP app before eating!)
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 set amount of time. Next, you proceed with daily rinsing and draining (2-3 times a day) with fresh water and let the seeds sit on your counter for a few days just 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 – such as legumes and grains – 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!). Other ferments use a fermentation starter like a SCOBY (kombucha), probiotics or another ferment (like the juice from live sauerkraut) to jumpstart the fermentation.
Benefits of sprouted and fermented plant foods
There are some well-established benefits of eating sprouted and fermented plant foods, the first being that, well…they’re plants! Fermented plant foods such kimchi, sauerkraut and sprouted almonds are nutrient-dense plants to begin with.
We also have some evidence that fermented and sprouted foods have additional benefits that occur as a result of the sprouting + fermenting process, such as:
- Increased bioavailability of nutrients. Because soaking and sprouting decreases binding substances like phytates and oxalates (the dreaded “anti-nutrients”), your body may be better able to access the nutrients in plant foods. This is absolutely a great thing…HOWEVER, it’s important to note that these foods are nutritious even without sprouting and soaking. Your body was designed to break these foods down. Unless you’ve got seriously compromised digestion or you’re trying to exist on a raw food diet (which I don’t generally recommend), soaking and sprouting is not essential. It’s simply a nice boost.
- Enhanced nutrition. There is some evidence that sprouted grains may have increased levels of certain vitamins and minerals such as iron, zinc and vitamin C. Sprouting grains may also increase antioxidants and GABA, which is a neurotransmitter associated with a calming effect.
- Increase in beneficial microbes and short-chain fatty acids. Fermented foods offer living microbes such as beneficial bacteria and yeasts that may support a healthier microbiome and better digestion. One recent trial found that eating large amounts of fermented foods daily was associated with a more robust gut microbiome effect than adding high fibre foods to the diet over the short term. However, it’s important to note that the clinical research on defined health outcomes of fermented foods is actually rather scant (which is NOT what the internet would have you believe).
What is an anti-nutrient?
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 and internet hyperbole to the anti-nutrient argument. For example, you could not survive on dried beans alone. In fact, dried kidney beans will make you sick! 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 massively reduced and aren’t really an issue anymore. So you definitely need to soak and boil beans…or sprout them well if wanting to consume them raw for some reason (chickpeas and lentils only!).
Unfortunately, the very presence of these compounds drives some people to say that these foods are bad. Which is patently false. Time and time again, research confirms that a diet filled with high fibre plant foods is the healthiest way to eat. Cooked beans are incredibly 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.
5 Sprouted and Fermented Foods You Should Eat
Now that we’ve debunked the fear mongering, let’s get into the fun! Sprouted and fermented foods are PLANT FOODS and many of them are incredibly nutrient-dense. Here are five to try.
- Broccoli Sprouts: The hype about broccoli sprouts is REAL. while lacking the fibre and minerals of mature broccoli, the levels of potent anti-inflammatory sulfur-derived phytochemicals like sulforaphane in broccoli sprouts is off the charts. So get yourself some broccoli sprouting seeds and enjoy on your salads, sandwiches and grain bowls!
- 100% Sprouted Grain Breads: Sprouted grain breads, made without flour are significantly more nutrient dense than regular 100% whole wheat breads. They typically contain more plant-based protein, more fibre (10g in 2 slices!) and even more vitamins and minerals than a standard sandwich loaf. It’s one of my fave easy swaps.
- Kimchi: kimchi is a traditional Korean fermented vegetable mixture that spicy, pungent and packed with nutrient-dense plant foods. While many fermented foods fall flat in the research department, kimchi actually has some research to suggest that when eaten in large amounts, it may improve blood sugars, blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
- Nut cheeses: soaked and fermented nut cheeses are a nutrient-dense alternative to supermarket vegan cheese. And it’s really easy to make your own…like my almond ricotta!
- Kefir: Kefir differs from yogurt in that it is fermented with a mixture of bacteria and beneficial yeasts. Like kimchi, there is actually a little bit of research to suggest that kefir is beneficial to health. You can easily make vegan versions with coconut milk or water, using vegan kefir strains but note that the research is done on milk-based kefir.
How to soak grains, nuts and seeds
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 don’t eat grain flours or beans raw…you cook with them. So nothing to worry about there.
But what about nuts and seeds? Or, if you’d like to try raw sprouted grains in a salad? While it’s not necessary in order to be well nourished, it’s going to add to the diversity of your diet and is kind of fun to do.
What you need for soaking + sprouting grains, nuts and seeds
- A 1 litre (1 quart) mason jar, well washed with hot soapy water and dried with a clean towel
- 1 cup of raw nuts, seeds or whole grains
- A hearty pinch of salt
- Boiled and cooled water
Add the salt and nuts, seeds or grains to your jar with enough warm water to cover. Cover with cheesecloth or paper towel secured by an elastic band and let soak overnight.
If you’re simply interested in ‘activating’ the nut or seed, you’re all done! Rinse and drain and you can use in nut milks or recipes right away. Or, dehydrate the nut or seed in a dehydrator or in the oven at the lowest temperature setting until all moisture is removed (up to 24 hours) for snacking. Store activated nuts and seeds in the fridge.
To sprout (grains, seeds, chickpeas, lentils, sunflower seeds, almonds, pumpkin seeds), you’re going to recover the jar with cheesecloth and lay it on its side, propped up so that excess liquid can drain. Twice a day, you’ll repeat the rinse, drain and recover until you notice little buds pop on on the nuts and seeds or an actual tiny sprout on the grains and seeds. Then rinse, drain, pat dry. For snacking, dehydrate nuts and seeds as above. For recipes, store in the fridge and use within a day.
FAQs about sprouting and fermentation
I get a ton of questions about fermented and sprouted foods, so here are a few of the highlights. Have a question? Leave it for me in the comments!
Anti-nutrients are naturally occurring plant compounds such as phytates, lectins and fibre that can bind minerals in plant foods. Anti-nutrients aren’t harmful and may even be beneficial.
Yes! Fermentation introduces beneficial microbes and yeasts into already healthy plant foods like cabbage. Enjoy them, but know that there isn’t actually a lot of research on specific health benefits of fermented foods.
They aren’t – people who are pregnant, on immuno-supressive medications or with compromised immune systems might want to avoid sprouted and fermented foods, particularly homemade ones.
Sprouting whole grains can increase the bioavailability of minerals such as zinc and iron, as well increase GABA and antioxidants. Sprouted grain breads are typically higher in protein + fibre than whole wheat breads.