Bakers Journal

Sprouting good from the grain

April 11, 2012
By By Brandi Cowen

Sprouted grains are taking root in the consumer consciousness as
shoppers seek out products offering the feel-good glow of a health halo.

Sprouted grains are taking root in the consumer consciousness as shoppers seek out products offering the feel-good glow of a health halo.

If you’re sprouting your own grain, let the shoot grow to between one and two millimetres in length.


As the name implies, sprouted grains are grain kernels that have been allowed to germinate, producing tiny shoots of new plant life. In its 2011 Culinary Trends Mapping report, the Center for Culinary Development (CCD) identified sprouted grains as a stage two trend. The San Francisco-based CCD uses a five-step model to follow food products on their journey from emerging trend to mainstream consumer item. As a stage two trend, sprouted grains are being featured in consumer media ranging from The Food Network to Bon Appétit magazine. Products in stage two are also carried by retailers catering to culinary professionals and serious home chefs.

For hundreds of years, accidental sprouting posed a challenge for farmers. After harvesting, they would leave sheaves of grain in their fields until they could be collected for milling. Damp and rainy weather offered optimal conditions for new plant growth, which, if allowed to continue unchecked, transforms grain into a grass plant that humans are unable to digest. Over the last 100 years, modern farming techniques have changed the game, shortening the time between harvesting and milling and giving grains fewer opportunities to sprout in the field. Clear guidelines have also been set to control how many sprouts make it into commercial wheat. In Canada, the Official Grain Grading Guide sets optimum sprout levels. The Canadian Grain Commission uses these levels, among other criteria, to determine whether grains are fit to enter the market.

As the demand for healthy baked goods continues to grow, sprouted grains are growing to be the latest trend.

Consistency in the ratio of sprouted to unsprouted kernels in grain is important for the baker, since ingredients must perform the same way every time they’re added to a formulation. As grain germinates, it produces enzymes that break down starches and sugars, providing nourishment for the baby plant. One of those enzymes, alpha-amylase, targets starch stored up in the grain kernel. When mixed with water, alpha-amylase will also break down some of the starches found in wheat flour.
“Flour damaged by alpha-amylase holds less water when mixed and the dough absorbs less water during baking. The baker must use more flour to make the same number of loaves of bread, an important cost factor,” the Canadian Grain Commission states on its website. “The enzyme also affects gas retention, dough handling and bread texture. Too much alpha-amylase activity causes wet, sticky dough that is hard to handle in a commercial bakery.”

Bread made from grain with too much alpha-amylase can gum up slicers and create jams in automated packaging systems. Once they hit the shelf, these loaves may be deformed, lacking visual appeal and turning off customers.

But despite the challenges sprouted grains pose, some in the baking industry are sprouting their grains on purpose, and health-minded consumers are hungry for more.

Getting sprouted
Unlike the farmers of yesteryear, modern food producers and manufacturers have developed detailed processes to regulate sprouting. Grains are allowed to germinate under carefully controlled conditions, sprouting to the point of peak enzyme activity. Moisture levels are carefully monitored. If the grain is exposed to too much moisture, the seed may drown before it has a chance to sprout. Excess moisture can also cause the sprouts to rot.

“Time is important too: if a healthy sprout continues to grow indefinitely, it becomes a new grass stalk, losing its digestibility, since humans can’t properly digest grasses,” the Whole Grains Council, a non-profit consumer group based in Boston, explains on its website.

How long a grain should be left to sprout varies from one grain to the next, and from operation to operation. Stonemill Bakehouse, an artisan bread wholesaler in Toronto, lets its grains sprout for 48 hours, while many cookbooks advise home bakers to plan for a three-day sprout period.

If you’re planning to sprout your own grain, you’ll need to choose an unmilled variety; milling crushes the grain’s seed, destroying its ability to produce new shoots. In Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads: New Techniques, Extraordinary Flavor, baker and culinary instructor Peter Reinhart recommends soaking one part grain in two parts water in a covered container for 12 to 24 hours. After soaking, drain the container and rinse the grain. Return the grains to the closed container and leave them at room temperature to sprout. Reinhart notes that the first hint of a shoot should appear within three to six hours. A good rule of thumb is to let the shoot grow to about one to two millimetres (0.04 to 0.08 inches) in length.

Once your sprouts are ready, there are two options to halt germination, effectively turning off growth and preserving the sprout at its ideal maturity. Drying the grain deprives the sprout of the moist environment it needs to grow. Once dried, sprouted grain can either be incorporated into recipes whole, or milled into grain flour. Alternatively, you can skip the drying step. Mashing the wet grain produces a thick, puree that can be used in breads and other baked goods. If using the wet method, you’ll need to adjust your recipe to account for the extra moisture the puree adds to your dough or batter.

Building on whole-grain benefits
Many of the health benefits associated with sprouted grains can be linked to the fact that they are produced from whole grains. As the Whole Grains Council explains on its website, whole grains are made up of three distinct parts:

  • The germ, or embryo, that will sprout into a new plant under the right conditions. This part of the grain contains B vitamins, minerals, protein and polyunsaturated, healthy fats.
  • The endosperm, which provides food for the embryo until it can establish roots to draw nutrients from the soil and sprouts to collect the sunlight it needs to produce energy. The endosperm is made up mostly of carbohydrates and protein, as well as small quantities of assorted vitamins and minerals.
  • The bran, or outer skin, of the kernel that protects it from sunlight, pests and disease. The bran contains B vitamins, fibre and antioxidants.

Canada’s Food Guide recommends that whole grains should account for one half of an adult’s six to eight daily grain servings.

But the benefits of sprouted grains appear to go beyond the nutrition found in whole grains. A 2008 study published in the journal Food Science found that sprouted flours measured higher in protein, fat, thiamine and riboflavin than unsprouted flours. In March 2010, Food Chemistry reported that sprouted amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat and wheat flours showed higher antioxidant activity than unsprouted versions. That same study also revealed that antioxidant levels dropped off after baking.

What the science is clear on is that vitamin levels and bioavailability of minerals (the extent to which these nutrients can be used by the body) increase after sprouting. It seems sprouting unlocks more of the goodness stored in the whole grain. The nutrients that sprouting frees up to feed baby plants can also nourish humans. The science is less clear on how much sprouted grain the average human must eat in order to reap measurable health benefits.

Diabetics are one consumer demographic that can directly benefit from consuming sprouted grains, as these grains have a low glycemic index (GI). Low GI foods are digested slowly, gradually raising blood sugar and insulin levels. This quality makes low GI foods the preferred pick for diabetics whose bodies struggle to regulate blood sugar and insulin levels.

The trend toward healthier baked goods appears to be here to stay. Sprouted grains are well positioned to draw consumers with an appetite for wholesome nutrition, not to mention foodies who want in on the latest trend before it achieves mainstream fame.

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