Is Soaking Whole Grains Worth the Time and Bother?

Is soaking grains worth the trouble?

When I first read Nourishing Traditions, I found it inspiring and helpful and the changes I made were for the most part easy and simple to do. And did I mention delicious? Grass-fed beef, pastured butter and eggs, really delicious milk, and real food in general were not a hard sale for my family or me.

(Photo Recipes: Front page picture – Soaked Gluten-free Blender Pancakes. Photo Above: Gluten-free, Soaked Lemon Poppyseed Cake from this eBook).

But I balked a bit on her recommendation to “soak, sprout or sourdough” any whole grain. For those unfamiliar, this is recommended for better nutrition as it helps break down phytic acid, an anti-nutrient that blocks us from absorbing nutrients, as well as for better digestibility. It wasn’t that I felt unconvinced that it was a good thing to do, it was simply the change I felt most overwhelmed about because it changed how I made every single baked good.

Now that I’ve had some practice, I’ve mostly found that I love this method! I think that soaked whole grain baked goods, when done right, can be lighter in texture and more enjoyable to eat than the typical whole grain baked good. I’ve also found that it’s not more work, it just means pre-planning. I’ve done a lot of experimentation with gluten-free baked goods (I’ll link to a gluten-free soaked muffin eBook I have available at the bottom of the post), and have been really pleased with that as well.

So you could say that I’m happy with it. At one point in this process, I really wanted to make sure that there were sound reasons for it nutritionally, so I spent hours pouring over the many, many studies on it. In the end, I was impressed with how well documented the advantages of sprouting, soaking, or souring (such as with sourdough) are. I’ll also link to my blog series on that research below.

Today, instead of rehashing everything I’ve written before on the topic, I wanted to honestly answer some of the concerns I hear a lot about this practice. I hear rumblings about this method every once in a while, or even hear panic about time periods when someone isn’t being able to eat every whole grain soaked. There have been whole blog posts done about how soaking grains ruined their health because it stressed them out so much.

So let me just address some of the questions and concerns.

Is soaking, sprouting, or souring grains nutritionally that advantageous?

I think that a good question is whether or not the average American (who is often accused of being “overfed”, not undernourished) really needs the nutritional boost from this method. The majority of the studies done on this traditional practice were done for the benefit of Third World countries that relied greatly on whole grains for nutrition. For them, anything that gave a boost was important, and souring whole grains was found to be really helpful.

Do we really need to be that careful?

There is evidence that far more Americans are malnourished than you would think. For example, one out of four people are found to be malnourished when first hospitalized. While many feel that the RDA for many vitamins and minerals are far below the optimal levels, many Americans don’t meet even those. While a certain percentage of the malnourished are those from food insecure families, many more are just average Americans. An unfortunate factor in our diets today is soil depletion, leaving our food with 25% less (or more!) of key nutrients.

We could be eating the same diet as our great grandparents and end up with much fewer nutrients.

So, yes, I’m all for anything that gives our diet a boost nutritionally. I also know that many who follow this blog have very strict budgets that perhaps don’t allow them in buy all of the nutrient dense foods they’d like to. This method could help ensure they are getting the nutritional advantage to the food they eat.

Is there evidence that it will really help with digestion?

Besides the nutritional boost we get from soaked, sprouted or soured whole grains, there is the issue of the digestibility of whole grains. I was fascinated by a couple of studies done on fermented whole grains and rats. Here is a snippet. (And if you haven’t read the series yet, a quick explanation, Phytic acid is the main anti-nutrient acid in grains that can prevent us from absorbing nutrients from whole grains. Phytase is the enzyme that allows us do neutralize it.)

“I found two studies highly interesting as they were done on rats. Rats produce much more phytase than humans (the enzyme that breaks down phytic acid), so they shouldn’t be as affected by eating raw grains and legumes. After all, none of us expect a rat to soak and cook it’s dinner before eating! However, when rats were given a soaked diet, the rats had enhanced digestion of their feed as well as improved absorption and retention of minerals and trace elements!

So even rats who have so much more natural phytase in their little ratty bodies benefited from eating a phytic acid free feed. I find that very remarkable. And I think points to the fact, once again, that reducing our phytic acid content could be quite helpful for us humans too.

In a separate case, they studied both by rats and amino acid analysis the effect of fermenting soybeans and wheat. They found that while the fermentation did not significantly change the amino acid composition of the wheat and soybeans, rats fed the fermented wheat “improved” significantly and that the protein efficiency ratio was increased by fermentation. This may have been because fermented wheat is a better source of lysine. The mixture of fermented soybeans and wheat together supported growth with the fermentation process raising the protein efficiency ratio so that it was comparable to casein. So once again, rats fared better when fed fermented feed!

Another in vitro study found fermenting cereal gruels with a natural starter culture, had significantly improved protein digestibility. This was only not true for a grain developed to not contain tannins. So fermenting had a big impact on the digestibility of protein (it almost doubled the digestibility of the protein for some grains).” Read the rest here. 

Once again, I find that there is evidence to back the claim that we would benefit from this method.

But is it worth the stress?

I’ve read more than a couple harried blog posts from other bloggers sharing how soaking every baked good they made was ruining their life, stressing them out, or just not worth it.

Sometimes we are much too black and white about things. Just because something is the “best” choice, or a good choice, doesn’t mean that you should kill yourself with work or stress over it – because then you are hurting yourself, using up important vitamins (like your B vitamin complex), and perhaps driving your family crazy.

And I’m not just saying that. When life has thrown us a curve ball, I buy gluten-free bread at the store. Happily. And nope, it’s not soaked either. Does that mean I think that choice nutritionally equal? Of course not, it just means sometimes we have to do the best with what we’ve got, and sometimes that has meant making compromises.

Now, I’ve found that compromise not good in the long term for us, so it means back to baking my own at some point! But giving myself grace has been helpful in not being a harried mother trying to “do everything right” at the cost of her sanity.

Is it the most important thing for me to change?

I personally think most would find the best benefits to actually making grains in general a lower portion of their diet, and really hitting the healthy fats, proteins, and produce hard. The Mood Cure and The Diet Cure convinced me that produce and protein and fats were vital for our general and mental health. The author recommends a good portion of protein and a plateful of produce every meal, and then, if still hungry, enjoying your toast or grain of choice. I appreciated her realistic viewpoint. She wasn’t going to ask people to completely leave them behind, but simply make them the least important part of the meal.

Some people find that grains are simply not digestible one way or another, or find that they need to be on a healing, grain-free diet. Others find they do fine with soaked grains, but it’s not worth the trouble, so just eat grain-free. Others couldn’t imagine life without grains, but want optimal health benefits, so sprout or soak them. It’s a personal thing.

Can this really be practical?

Once again, what’s practical really depends on what you think is practical. I have friends who find it practical to be making soaked baked goods every single day, and they enjoy it, their family enjoys it, and everyone is happy. For me, right now I find it easier to get our grains generally in the form of soaked quinoa, or white rice cooked in broth for our dinners. And perhaps with a soaked gluten-free pizza thrown in here and there.

When I have more free time, I do often find myself making crackers, or gluten-free muffins, or pancakes on a daily basis. I make it work, and give myself grace when not every meal has soaked grains. It’s not an all or nothing, by the way. I’ve served bakery bread with lunch, and soaked quinoa for dinner many a time.

Really, for me, making a commitment to a nourishing, nutrient-dense lifestyle has meant making time, cutting out other things, and working for it. It doesn’t mean that I don’t make simple meals (because I do!), but it has meant that it does take some time, some commitment, and some work to accomplish. Because I am already in the kitchen making other good foods, setting some grains out to soak overnight isn’t such a stretch as you might think, I just have to keep the kitchen rhythm going. And when that rhythm gets broken, I shrug, smile, and get back on track when I can.

So, in closing, my encouragement to you, based on my current research is that yes soaking, sprouting or making sourdough grains and baked goods is worth it. But it does take time to learn, and life can be crazy, so as with any other good practice, grace should prevail.

Resources:

(Product links may be affiliate links)

Other sources of information for post:

http://www.foodandnutrition.org/September-October-2013/It-Takes-a-Village/

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=soil-depletion-and-nutrition-loss

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I love beautiful and simple food that is nourishing to the body and the soul. I wrote Fresh: Nourishing Salads for All Seasons and Ladled: Nourishing Soups for All Seasons as another outlet of sharing this love of mine. I also love sharing practical tips on how to make a real food diet work on a real life budget. Find me online elsewhere by clicking on the icons below!

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Comments

  1. says

    I soak and sprout when I can and when I can’t, I usually either buy the best bread that I can afford (Ezekiel, usually, but sometimes even just the WM stuff) or I use white flour. I know that it’s not the perfect solution, but it works for us… I have five children and sometimes I simply run out of time and/or energy. I’ve learned to give myself grace on the days that I can’t do it all.

  2. says

    I love the overall tone of reality and grace here, this has been such a discussed subject and people can become all worked I think the only reason I’ve been able to remain committed to these basic food-prep principles is because I don’t have to make myself do them, I do what I can and try not to sweat the rest! In my own accusatory mind that does sometimes makes me feel like a luke-warm WAP-er but it’s so much better than being driven into a frenzy about every morsel that crosses our lips!

  3. Gail says

    Thank you so much for writing this helpful article! I have been soaking beans and grains for about six months now. I find it easiest to soak oatmeal and rice 2-3 times a week. I find it frustrating to soak flour; therefore, I have been buying sprouted flour from To Your Health. The Einkorn flour is tasty and makes great pancakes and baked goods.

  4. says

    I really appreciate you pointing out that soaking grains doesn’t have to be all or nothing, and especially how stressing over our healthy food is counterproductive in the long run!

    I also really like the suggestion of eating proteins/fats/veggies first and then following with carbs/grains if you still want them. I think some people really do function better with carb heavy food than on a paleo type diet , for instance my husband has a fast enough metabolism that he needs plenty of carbs to burn regularly. For them it’s more a matter of making sure they get in their veggies too.

    Other people, like me, can’t handle quite as many carbs all the time, but still function better with some carbs. It’s so much a matter of listening to your own body and realizing what you need to feel at your best.

  5. says

    Great article Kimi – as usual, you show conviction, clarity and grace.

    You hit the nail on the head with your first point, that we can all use any nutritional boost we can get. I’m inspired!

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