Sprouted breads are not a new phenomenon. In fact, they have quite ancient roots. The use of sprouted grains in bread can be traced back to the Essenes, a Jewish monastic group that prospered from the second century BC to the first century AD. They sprouted the grain before grinding it into dough and baking it in the desert sun.
Today, we may not all use the sun to bake our bread, although solar ovens are fabulous, but the end result is still a flavourful, moist bread that is full of nutrients and activated food enzymes.
What are sprouted grains?
Flour, the main ingredient in most bread, is processed on an array of levels depending on the desired outcome. For example, whole wheat bread is made by grinding the wheat kernels to release a vitamin-rich germ, a protein, along with a carbohydrate-dense endosperm and an outer shell called the bran.
In contrast, refined, processed breads, such as white breads, are made by completely removing the wheat kernel’s germ and bran and using only the endosperm – this process prolongs the grains’ shelf life. Although prolonging the grains’ shelf life may be viewed as advantageous, it should be noted that over half of the vitamins B1, B2, B3, E, folic acid, calcium phosphorus, zinc, copper, iron, and fibre are lost.
To make what is known as sprouted bread, the wheat kernels, also known as wheat berries, are allowed to sprout before they are ground. The process of sprouting releases all of the vitamins and minerals stored in the grain, making them more readily available for absorption by the body.
What are wheat berries?
Wheat berries are the entire, edible part of the wheat kernel. The hull is removed leaving the nutritious germ, bran and endosperm intact. This makes for a kernel packed full of fibre, vitamins and minerals.
Wheat berries can vary in size, colour and texture and are named after their growing season (winter versus spring), their gluten content (hard wheat versus soft wheat) and their colour (red versus white).
Hard Red Spring and Hard Red Winter varieties are brownish in colour and make fabulous breads and baked goods. Hard White is a lighter kernel used for breads and brewing, and Soft White is light in colour as well but soft in nature and often used to make pastry flour.
A half-cup serving of cooked wheat berries is a great source of manganese, selenium, phosphorus and magnesium. Wheat berries also contain lignans which are phytochemicals thought to guard against breast and prostate cancers.
Wheat berries have a delicious chewy texture and can be cooked up in chili, soups and salads. I am a sucker for black bean, edamame and wheat berry salad!
Soaked and sprouted, wheat berries are the cornerstone of sprouted wheat bread. The sprouts are then dehydrated and finely pulverized before milling into flour. For baking sprouted wheat bread, buy organic flours that have been dried and milled at low temperatures and promptly marketed to preserve the sprouts’ enzymes and nutrients that would otherwise be lost.
The benefits of sprouted bread
Sprouted grain breads are great sources of whole grains but when weighed up against their whole wheat counterpart, the levels of calcium, niacin, iron and fibre are comparable, according to dietician Ruth Frechman (source). However, protein levels can be greater in sprouted grain breads making them a good option for vegetarians.
Sprouted breads also have a low glycemic index so they are digested more slowly by the body, which in turn leaves you feeling more satisfied with less snacking throughout the day. They are also lower in gluten than non-sprouted breads.
Zinc absorption is another benefit of sprouted bread, especially for vegetarians. Many grains and beans contain phytic acid, which can bind with zinc and prevent its absorption. Sprouting can neutralize this substance and make zinc more readily absorbed.
The consumption of whole grains can play a role in reducing cholesterol and regulating blood sugar and insulin levels. Additionally, eating whole grains seems to reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain gastrointestinal cancers.
Besides sprouted grains’ nutritional benefits, they also play an important role in activating food enzymes due to their extremely digestible nature.
Sprouting breaks down concentrated starch into simple carbohydrates and protein into free amino acids so our own enzymes do not have to work as hard. In order to stay alive, the digestion of food is a high priority for the body. When there are no enzymes in our food, the process of digestion forces the body to produce an abundant flow of concentrated digestive enzymes.
As we get older, we lose the ability to produce concentrated digestive enzymes. As this happens, we are less able to absorb the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients in our food, and we lose the ability to produce adequate amounts of all the other enzymes needed by our body. As enzyme activity is diminished in the cells, there is an acceleration of the aging process that makes us increasingly susceptible to disease.
When we get enzymes from our food, it relieves our body of having to make such concentrated digestive enzymes. Eating enzyme-rich foods such as sprouted grains allows our body to maximize its production of non-digestive enzymes, which helps us produce an adequate level of enzymes all our life.
While sprouting grains is not a difficult task, it does take a little preparation as most healthy, unprocessed foods do. You can use the sprouted grains in salads and sandwiches, for porridges, or even eaten raw as a healthy snack.
If you wish to carry on and be really industrious, you can bake your own bread; however, you will probably want some more specialised equipment like a grain grinder and maybe a dehydrator. The trick to baking Essene bread is to do it at a low temperature for a longer amount of time, which gives it that iconic, satisfying, chewy texture.
Whatever your reason for using sprouted grains, you are sure to reap their healthy rewards. The versatile nature of wheat berries can add interest and variation to a number of meals. Whether you purchase premade sprouted wheat bread or have a go at making your own, you will immerse yourself in an age old tradition that carries on today.
Editors note: If you do want to make sprouted wheat bread, CJ over at Apron Stringz had an inspiring how-to post a while ago (with pics!), but she did say it was for the ‘seasoned bread baker’ only!