Friday, November 2, 2007

Whole Grains: the Budding Staff of Life

Modern nutrition celebrates whole grains as a healthy alternative to refined carbohydrates because they provide more vitamins, minerals and fiber. What the advertisements fail to mention is that all whole grains contain phytic acid, an “anti-nutrient” that blocks absorption of minerals like calcium, magnesium, copper, iron, and zinc. I personally have enough trouble getting adequate minerals into my body to let them go that easily. Fortunately, ancient bakers discovered several delicious ways of dealing with this biological obstacle before they even had a name for it. They did this by sprouting, soaking or fermenting the grains.
Sprouting grains invokes the life-giving miracle of germination. Neolithic folks found that their flatbreads lasted longer when they sprouted the grain first, and Egyptians discovered that they could use sprouted grain to make beer. Raw foodists today are just fanatical about sprouts with good reason. They’re among the richest sources of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, antioxidants, amino acids and proteins. Germination also deactivates phytic acid and breaks down starches into simple sugars, making sprouts easier to digest. They can be dried, milled and used like regular flour in your favorite cookie recipe. (If you do plan to bake with dried sprouts, don’t let them sprout longer than a millimeter, and store them in the freezer or else they’ll make your cookies taste like old lawn clippings. Trust me!) Sprouts are also delicious fresh in salads, soups, pilafs and any other vegetable application. The fun isn’t limited to grains – rice, beans and nuts sprout too!
Soaking and fermenting grains also neutralize phytic acid. Old-fashioned breads required flour to be soaked in sour milk overnight or mixed with sourdough cultures. Other groups mixed their cereal grains with water and let them ferment into a sour porridge. Beneficial enzymes (like phytase) and bacteria in these sour concoctions would break down phytic acid, tannins, complex starches, enzyme inhibitors, and hard-to-digest proteins in the grain while making the nutrients more available. The lion’s share of this work is done in seven hours.
It's only in very recent history that we've forgotten the nutrient-enhancing techniques of sprouting, soaking and fermenting our grains. After all, food is cheaper, faster, and tastes just fine when we skip them. The ancient ways are relegated to artisans, and I'm grateful that they're still around. In my kitchen, sprouting and fermenting grains doesn't take much more effort than using them raw - just a little more planning, patience and practice - and the nutritional advantages are well worth it.

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