A: At a time when everyone is constantly arguing about whether grains can be part of a healthy diet (Whole grains provide fiber! Gluten is the devil!), sprouted grains generally wear a little crown of goodness, no matter where you stand.
My general thinking is this: sprouted grains do have some intriguing benefits, so if you can go sprouted, you should. However, they’re probably not that much better for you than regular old whole grains.
Here’s what you need to know.
Okay, first some grains 101. Grains are the whole seeds of plants. All seeds contain growth inhibitors that keep them from germinating until they’re settled in the soil and feeling cozy, with ideal temperature and water conditions.
RELATED: A Modern Guide to Ancient Grains
To sprout grains, companies (or home cooks!) create those ideal conditions, deactivating the growth inhibitors and allowing the seed to germinate (AKA sprout) just a tiny bit, so it’s essentially the baby version of a plant. That sprouted seed is then eaten whole (like sprouted quinoa or brown rice or milled into flour, like in bread made with sprouted grains; as opposed to regular whole grains that are just the seed before it’s sprouted.
First, sprouted grains may be more easily digested. When a seed first sprouts, enzymes transform starch stored in the endosperm (the part of the seed that’s essentially stored food for the plant) into simpler molecules that can be easily digested by the growing plant embryo. Since those molecules are easier for the plant to digest, many believe they may also easier on human digestion. Some research backs up that argument in certain grains, like barley. Sprouted grains have also been shown to be higher in fiber and lower in gluten, which could help with digestibility (especially for those with gluten sensitivities!).
The most compelling science-backed argument for eating sprouted grains is that they’re straight-up higher in important nutrients. In addition to fiber, studies show sprouted grains may contain more essential amino acids and B vitamins, antioxidants, folate, and more.
Those nutrients may also be more bioavailable. Just think: the seed is doing its best to make as many nutrients as possible available to the plant so it can grow, so it may also be helping your body out in the process. Some small differences in nutrient bioavailability have been noted between sprouted-grain and other whole-grain breads.
Finally, sprouting significantly reduces levels of lectins—controversial “antinutrients” that may disrupt digestion—in whole grains.
All this compelling info may make you want to start swapping all of your grains for sprouted ones immediately, but it’s important to remember a few things.
Most of these studies are small and the changes in nutrient concentrations are also small. In other words, a tiny bit of extra folate in your sprouted brown rice bowl may not make a significant difference on your long-term health compared to if you ate a non-sprouted brown rice bowl.
If you have the chance to go sprouted, go for it! Sprouted grains are a healthy addition to any diet, as are whole grains. Just keep steering clear of refined, processed grains first and foremost.
A Modern Guide to Ancient Grains
Whole wheat, brown rice, oats…you already know these can be part of a balanced diet, but what about ancient grains, AKA their grainy grandparents?
Filled with vitamins, minerals, and fiber, they’ve been cultivated for a long time (for good reason) and many of them have specific health benefits, provide energy, and promote satiety.
RELATED: The benefits of fiber
Plus, broadening your grain horizons is great for your palate. Ancient grains tend to have a nutty taste and have a slightly chewier texture, but each is slightly different. Translation: you’ll never get sick of veggie-grain bowls if you can keep switching up the base.
Here’s what you need to know about the most popular (there are many more!) ancient grains.
Amaranth had a long history in Mexico and Peru and was a major crop for the Aztecs. Some say it was domesticated as far back as 6,000 to 8,000 years ago. It’s actually the seed of a broad-leafed flowering plant, but its nutrition profile means it’s classified as a grain. It’s a great source of protein and is higher in lysine, cysteine, and methionine—essential amino acids required for cell and brain maintenance—than other grains. It’s also rich in calcium, magnesium, and iron and is gluten-free. One popular way to enjoy it? As a breakfast porridge, like in this recipe from Nutrition Stripped.
Indigenous to Central Asia where it still grows wild, buckwheat has also been providing fibrous nutrition to humans for up to 8,000 years and like amaranth, is actually a seed that’s classified as a grain. Don’t let it’s name fool you: it’s not wheat and is in fact gluten-free. It’s one of the best sources of protein in the grain world (23g per cup!) and is high in flavonoids that act as antioxidants. Buckwheat has also been linked to lowered risk of developing high cholesterol and high blood pressure and contains magnesium, which helps improve circulation and overall cardiovascular health. Soba noodles are made with buckwheat and are a delicious way to enjoy it, topped with stir-fried veggies.
TRY THIS RECIPE: Shrimp Soba Noodles
A centuries-old staple in Mediterranean countries like Italy, farro is a form of wheat. It’s a great source of protein and essential vitamins and minerals and is also lower in calories than brown rice and quinoa, while higher in fiber. Farro is dense and chewy and is a great nutrient-rich substitute for rice in dishes like risotto.
TRY THIS RECIPE: Broccoli Rabe and Farro Stuffed Mushroom
Freekeh has been popular for centuries in countries like Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt. Here’s the thing: it’s not the name of a plant; it’s the result of a process. Green durum wheat is picked before it’s mature (hence the green color), and then it’s roasted, rubbed, and dried, creating freekeh, a rice-sized flavorful grain. It’s a good source of protein and fiber and contains vitamins like A, C, and E, plus potassium, magnesium and calcium. Since it’s roasted, it also comes with a smokiness compared to other grains.
The smallest of all grains, millet is thought to have originated in Asia and Africa thousands of years ago before spreading around the world. (Fun fact: It’s mentioned in the Old Testament!) It’s not as high in fiber or protein as some of the other gluten-free grains, but it does provide some of each and is a great source of micronutrients like magnesium and manganese. It also has a much lighter, airier texture than denser grains like farro and sorghum, so if you like a little less chewiness, it’s a good option.
Quinoa (the wellness world’s fave!) is a plant that originated in Peru and Bolivia and was used by many ancient civilizations in South America. It’s gluten-free and high in fiber and protein, providing all nine essential amino acids (a rare feat in the plant world). It’s also rich in iron, B vitamins, zinc, and calcium. The best part? Quinoa is probably the easiest grain (well, it’s another seed, actually, that’s classified as a grain) to cook and its neutral flavor means it works as a base for almost any meal.
TRY THIS RECIPE: Quinoa Granola
Sorghum originally came from northeastern Africa and is now widely cultivated in the US, ever since Ben Franklin mentioned its powers in 1757. The gluten-free grain has been linked to diabetes prevention and contains compounds that may inhibit the growth of tumor cells. It also has more antioxidants than other grains. It has a hearty, nutty flavor and bigger kernels that are closer to the texture of farro than quinoa.
An ancient cousin to modern wheat, Spelt was one of the first grains to be grown by early farmers as far back as 5,000 BC. It comes with a rich sienna color and nutty flavor. The fiber found in spelt is linked to the prevention of heart disease and diabetes, reduced LDL cholesterol, and reduced breast cancer risk. Spelt is also an excellent source of vitamin B2, manganese, thiamin, and copper.
A final ancient grain pro tip to take away? Cook your grains in vegetable broth instead of water for extra flavor and micronutrients.
2 Farro Salad Recipes You NEED in Your Life
Kale salad, check. Three berry fruit salad, check. Cucumber salad, check. Farro salad? Hmmmm.
You’re eating clean. Getting in those greens. Drinking your tea. And, chowing down on nuts and avocado. But, you still need a little substance.
Something solid as a side dish (or even a main meal) when salmon and spinach alone don’t do the trick.
Rice? Pasta? No thank you refined starchy evil doers.
Quinoa? Been there, done that for the past two years.
Enter your new friend farro, also known as emmer or “true” farro. Sometimes this ancient grain gets confused with spelt, worthy of praise too, but different in taste, texture and nutrients than the the real deal variety.
When you a need a hearty side dish that you can feel empowered eating, give this really retro grain a try. Farro is a whole grain loaded with vits and mins, fiber and a little protein. Its also your new grain friend-with-benefits: it’s lower in calories than brown rice and quinoa and higher in fiber. Queue the mic drop.