Why all the fuss about sprouting and is it really the best way to eat your legumes, grains, nuts and other seeds? Well, it is up to you to decide, but I will use this article to provide you with some basic information about sprouts as food, and some tips for sprouting at home.
Many of the plant seeds that we use as food can easily be sprouted – legumes (such as lentils, beans, chickpeas), cereals (such as wheat or barley), pseudocereals (such as buckwheat). Even almonds can germinate if you give them enough of your patience.
Sprouts are more natural for a human diet than dry, dormant seeds because they are much easier to digest and contain enzymes, vitamins and minerals that human body can use. You can grow edible sprouts even from seeds that you wouldn’t normally use in your diet, such as broccoli, turnip, garlic or alfalfa seeds.
The beautiful complexity (or simplicity) of Nature
All grains, pulses, nuts and other seeds that we use as food are, botanically speaking, seeds. Even though we use them in different ways, they have many features in common, and one of the important ones in the culinary domain is certainly their ability to germinate.
Seed is a plant structure that contains a dormant plant embryo – dehydrated and supplied with all needed nutrients that will feed it later on. This nutrition stock will enable its development into a young plant after it gets a signal from the environment and starts to germinate.
Seeds are therefore packed with protein and oil or starch, but also rich in vitamins and minerals. No wonder that human kind has found a use of them and that seeds have become such an important food staple in human diet.
However, there are some things to consider – nutrients in dry, dormant seeds will never be as readily available for our bodies to absorb as the nutrients from activated seeds (ones that started or are about to start their germination process after being soaked in water). One of the reasons for that is presence of phytic acid in seeds.
Why plants have phytic acid, and what we can do about it
Phytic acid is a chemical compound that plants use as a storage form of phosphorous. Once a seed gets a signal from the environment that it is the right time to start sprouting and growing into a plant, phytic acid will get broken down to make that phosphorus available in order to feed the seedling.
In human digestive system, phytic acid forms bonds with minerals such as calcium, zinc, magnesium and iron, thus inhibiting their absorption in human body. That way our body discards the precious minerals rather than using them as its building material.
For that reason, phytic acid can be called an antinutrient. By soaking seeds, we activate their enzymes called phytases, which are naturally responsible for decomposition of phytic acid in seeds.
Sprouting – what it means for a plant, and what for human nutrition
Sprouting is a process in which a young plant changes from its latent form (a seed) into an active one (what we recognise as a plant). In that process, numerous enzymes are activated, starch is broken down into simpler sugars, phytic acid is decomposed…
All that happens so that a young plant gets all the energy and minerals that it needs for the first stage of its growth and development, while it is still unable to photosynthesize. But, since we use seeds as food, we can also benefit from these processes that plants have developed so profoundly.
During the process of sprouting, levels of vitamin A and E, some vitamins from B group and vitamin C get significantly elevated. Decomposition of starch in the sprouting process makes sprouts more easily digestible and decomposition of phytic acid makes the mineral absorption in human intestine easier and more successful.
Creating the conditions for sprouting
To start the sprouting process, seeds need a signal from the environment, and the most important signal in this case is water. So, to induce sprouting, seeds need to be soaked in water for a certain amount of time.
The time required to activate a seed and make it ready for sprouting can vary form species to species, but in most cases you won’t go wrong if you leave your seeds in water for about 8 hours and then strain the water.
A good temperature for sprouting is usually between 18 and 25 °C. It is also good to keep the seeds away from the direct sunlight. A shady corner in the kitchen will be good enough, but for most species it will also be okay if you decide to put them in the dark.
A quick example – sprouting mung beans
I recently sprouted mung beans, and here is how: I first let the seeds soak in water at the room temperature for 8 hours. After that, I strained them, washed under running water and left in a strainer that was placed in a larger bowl.
I put the soaked mung beans inside of a kitchen closet (you can also just put them on a spot that never gets direct sun exposure), and rinsed them every 6-8 hours. After two days, the sprouts were already 3-4 cm long and ready to be consumed. At lower temperatures they will probably need more time to achieve that length, but you can eat them earlier on as well.
If you would like to find out more, I explained my favourite (and also super simple) method of growing legume sprouts in more detail in this article about lentil sprouts.
Besides mung beans, I often sprout buckwheat and lentils. All of these are really easy to grow and will germinate quite quickly.
Sprouts can be used in cooked dishes such as stir fry’s (especially thicker sprouts such as mung bean or soy sprouts), but they are also really delicious and healthy when eaten raw, in salads or as an addition to a cooked dish. They will work great in a sandwich, with crackers or in a sushi roll.
Honestly, watching the sprouts grow is one of those things that make me appreciate food even more. Life force doing its thing in front of you, looks magical, but that is actually “just” life.