Have you ever wondered why some people advocate sprouting grain? Is it a healthier? What does it do? When I was young, I wondered if eating a pumpkin seed would cause a pumpkin to grow inside me! Why did the seed grow in the ground and not inside of me? How did it know when to grow? I will try to address these questions below.
Phytic Acid – the Good and the Bad
A natural substance found in plant seeds is called phytic acid or phytate. It is found in the bran of all grains. It serves as the main storage form of phosphorus in the seeds. When seeds sprout, phytate is degraded and the phosphorus released so the young plant can use it to grow. Phytic acid is also known as inositol hexaphosphate, or IP6. It is often used commercially as a preservative due to its antioxidant properties.
However, phytic acid also serves as an enzyme inhibitor and can have a negative effect on the human gut. How can a plant be ‘bad’ for human digestion? How is this possible?
What’s An Enzyme Inhibitor?
Seeds have to survive to the next growing season and do so under extreme conditions (freezing, floods, animals and humans eating them!). The seed needs to store energy (sugar – carbohydrates), building blocks (protein), and the means to use these resources – enzymes. But, the enzymes need to be stored so they don’t activate and cause things to begin growing – they have to delay growing until the right season of life. This is where enzyme inhibitors come in. They are natural molecules that ‘mate’ with enzymes so they can sit dormant until it’s time to start working (growing). They basically prevent the enzyme from performing any work until the right time arrives. This is important for the plant’s survival long term.
Phytic Acid as an Enzyme Inhibitor
Since seeds contain enzyme inhibitors so they don’t sprout until they are safely planted in the soil, many grains contain phytic acid to perform this function. Phytic acid keeps the seed from sprouting in the gut of animals (and humans) so that the seed can pass through and be expelled in the feces and take root in the soil where it can safely germinate and produce a new plant. This is great from a plant perspective and ensures the survival of the next generation of plants. But from a human perspective, theses enzyme inhibitors can interfere with the digestive enzymes in the intestinal tract reducing the absorption of important minerals. Phytic acid impairs the absorption of iron, zinc and calcium, and can promote overall mineral deficiencies especially in vegetarians.
Sprouting, Soaking, and Fermenting Grain
Sprouting, soaking, and fermenting the grain can ‘unmate’ or neutralize these enzyme inhibitors allowing the seed’s vitamins and minerals to be more available for our benefit. Soaking consists of leaving grains and legumes submerged in water overnight to reduce their phytate content. Sprouting seeds, which is also known as germination, causes the phytate to likewise degrade. Fermentation consists of using organic acids, created during the fermentation process, to breakdown the phytic acid. Lactic acid fermentation is good example of this and is used in making sourdough bread. A combination of these methods can reduce phytate substantially. For example, soaking, sprouting and lactic acid fermentation can reduce the phytic acid content of quinoa seeds by 98%
Iron deficiency can be more of a risk for those who eat no meat. There are two kinds of iron in foods: heme iron and non-heme iron. Heme-iron is found in foods like meat that come from animals. Non-heme iron is found in plants. Compared to iron from meat, iron from plant-derived food is not as readily absorbed by the human gut. Part of the problem is that non-heme iron is highly affected by phytic acid, whereas heme-iron is not. Zinc is another mineral that is better absorbed by humans when found in meat even in the presence of phytic acid. So, while we recommend eating a lot of vegetables, we always encourage having some meat in your diet. In moderation, it is a good thing and people who include some meat in their diet are less likely to suffer from mineral deficiencies than vegetarians/vegans who are ultra strict in their diet.
Word of Warning
One word of warning. While sprouting seeds is generally a good thing. Remember that if you sprout modern wheat it is still modern wheat! The modern gluten will be a problem. So, if you are going to sprout your grains, make sure the wheat comes from ancient grains. Sprouting the dwarf and semi-dwarf modern wheat helps with this phytic acid concern but it doesn’t solve the gluten problem we address in our classes.
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