Walk into any grocery store recently and you’ll likely notice a huge trend- everything is sprouted or soaked. But what does sprouting and soaking really mean? And is it actually better for our health? And better yet, is it actually worth the (typically) higher price tag? Let’s break these questions down.
What’s the difference between sprouting and soaking?
Sprouting: Think of when you’re gardening. You take a seed, put it in the ground, and with enough water, nutrients and the right temperature the seed will start to sprout. Now, remember that many foods that we eat are actually “seeds”- think legumes like chickpeas, lentils and black beans, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, almonds and quinoa. All seeds can be sprouted. In order to stop the sprouting process before turning into full-blown plants, we can dry or consume them, or add them to other products.
Soaking: Think of soaking as the initial step before actually sprouting a legume, grain, nut or seed. Many people soak beans before cooking to cut down on cooking time and reduce compounds that may cause gasiness in our digestive systems (although it’s not completely necessary, it’s definitely recommended).
Why should I sprout or soak my food?
Reduce phytic acid
Phytic acid (or phytate) is a compound found in plant-seeds that may decrease absorption of nutrients such as iron, zinc, and to a lesser extent, calcium by binding to these nutrients in the foods that we consume. Phytic acid may reduce absorption in these foods in the specific food that we’re eating, but will have no effect on absorption in subsequent meals or snacks.
Sprouting and soaking have been shown to reduce phytic acid by allowing it to leach into the soaking water, which we then pour down the drain, to make nutrients like iron and zinc more available for our bodies to absorb. Soaking and sprouting may also increase the activity of enzymes that break down phytic acid.
Sprouting may increase nutrients
Studies have shown that sprouting food may increase protein and other nutrients, such as protein, folate, magnesium, phosphorus, manganese, vitamin C and vitamin K.
How do I soak or sprout seeds?
Soaking: To soak legumes, nuts, seeds or whole grains, place in a bowl of fresh water with a splash of something acidic (apple cider vinegar or lemon juice works great) for anywhere from 20 minutes-24 hours. Make sure to change the water every 12 hours, if you plan to go that long. The length of time to soak will depend on the specific food that you’re soaking, as well as how much time you personally have. I typically recommend soaking for eight hours or overnight, but even soaking for a few hours before cooking may help to absorb more nutrients from food. Note that soaking will reduce cooking time, so make sure you keep an eye on whatever you’re cooking.
Sprouting: To sprout legumes, nuts, seeds or whole grains, first place seeds (example: about 2 tbsp of dried lentils will make about 1 cup of lentil sprouts) in a clean jar and fill almost to the top with water. Cover the jar with a few layers of cheesecloth, and let soak for 8-12 hours. Then, drain and rinse the seeds 2-3 times through the mesh cheesecloth layer. After the final rinse, tilt jar upside down at a 45-degree angle in a bowl (so the water can drain out) and cover with a dish towel and keep out of sunlight. Repeat the rinsing and draining process 2-3 times per day, for about 2-4 days until you see a tail form that’s about 2-3 times longer than the seed itself. Once the seeds have sprouted as much as you’d like, rinse and drain the sprouts very well and let them sit in a colander to drain and dry for at least 8 hours. Store the seed sprouts in the fridge in an airtight container for up to two weeks.
*Disclaimer: Because of the conditions that seeds are sprouted in (a warm and damp environment) and they are typically consumed raw or lightly cooked, they can be a breeding ground for bacteria such as Salmonella and E. Coli. Make your own sprouts at your own risk. Follow proper hygiene procedures such as washing your hands thoroughly before handling the sprouts.
The bottom line
Although sprouting and soaking may have beneficial effects, such as increasing protein and nutrient availability, it’s not completely necessary. I tell my clients that if the choice is between consuming legumes, grains, nuts or seeds that haven’t been soaked or sprouted or not consuming them at all, I’ll always recommend the former. Non-soaked or sprouted food is still perfectly nutritious. We are still able to obtain nutrients from our food without sprouting or soaking, so don’t let lack of time or ability to soak/sprout be a deterrent from eating these highly nutritious foods. If you are someone who suffers from digestive issues, you may benefit from consuming more soaked or sprouted foods. However, always make sure you check with your registered dietitian or physician.
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