What Does It Mean When Something Is 'Sprouted'? Is It Actually Better For You?
Sprouted foods are suddenly everywhere—Soul Sprout has bars and sprouted almond butter bites, One Degree Organics has sprouted turmeric tortillas and oatmeal, TruRoots sells pre-sprouted quinoa, and I'm sure you've seen some (likely crazy expensive) sprouted nut butter on the shelf at your local health food store. But what does it mean if something is sprouted? Is it actually better for you?
Why should I soak or sprout my food?
The process simply involves submerging nuts, seeds, and legumes in water for 12 to 24 hours. At mbg's most recent cookbook club, My New Roots blogger Sarah Britton explained, "Every seed is dormant until the conditions are in place for it to become a plant. If you take a sunflower seed and just eat it, you're actually eating a locked up plant. When you soak it, you're telling it that it's about to become an entire plant, because all of the nutrients to become that are inside, but they're asleep until you soak it. When you soak it, you're initiating the growing process and awakening the nutrition. Eating a handful of raw almonds isn't going to kill you—it's better than a bag of chips—but you're not getting all of the nutrients."
Soaking is a step less than sprouting, meant to disable the phytic acid present in nuts, seeds, and legumes and unlock some of that mega-energy Sarah is referring to. You want to decrease phytic acid in foods you consume as much as possible because it impairs the absorption of a number of minerals, including zinc, calcium, and iron1 (although it's to be noted that the impairment only happens during that meal, not at subsequent meals). All seeds, legumes, and nuts contain varying amounts of phytates. Finally, soaking and sprouting makes food far more digestible. People who have sensitivities to certain foods (nuts, especially), often find them much more tolerable after soaking or sprouting.
Bottom line: You're soaking and sprouting to reduce phytates and increase mineral absorption, and to unlock the nutritive properties of what you're eating, making it more bioavailable and easier to digest.
What do I need to soak or sprout?
Any legumes, nuts, or seeds. A better question might be what don't you need to sprout: macadamia nuts, pine nuts, and red kidney beans (which can become toxic). While you can sprout flax, chia, and hemp seeds, most people don't, since it requires a special process. Hemp seeds also are naturally free of phytic acid. Miranda Hammer, R.D., personally skips the smaller seeds, saying she "prefers to focus on soaking grains and larger legumes like chickpeas, steel-cut oats, and brown rice."
There is controversy, however, over whether almonds labeled "raw" are truly raw and able to be sprouted. Currently, nuts grown in the US have to be pasteurized prior to commercialization, so they likely don't technically sprout. These "raw" almonds from the US are likely "activated" and the anti-nutrients will be removed. That being said, the most benefits you can get from soaking or sprouting occur when the nuts aren't treated with this pasteurization process first (i.e., if you sprout nuts from outside the US).
How long do I need to soak everything for?
While soak times technically vary, for the vast majority of foods, overnight (about 10 to 12 hours) is ideal. Simply submerge your nut, seed, or legume in filtered water with a bit of sea salt. Cover loosely with a kitchen towel and let sit at room temperature. After 10 to 12 hours, drain your nut, seed, or legume and rinse it well before preparing as usual. If your plans change, you can always freeze the food at this point so it's ready to go the next time you need it.
What if I buy canned chickpeas or beans? Are those sproutable? Does the canning water count as soaking them?
According to Miranda, nope. "Canned beans are already cooked and sometimes canned in salt or another preservative," she says. "To my knowledge, sprouting/activating occurs when the legume is dried and reconstituted in liquid, so activation of canned would not be possible. Canning is more a preservation technique than an activation technique. The canning process limits the change that occurs in the product."
Are the pre-sprouted products on the market as good for me as doing it myself?
While Miranda says that "doing it yourself is my personal gold standard," Sarah thinks that pre-sprouted goods are a great place to start, and relying on pre-sprouted oatmeal, quinoa, and nuts is better than not sprouting at all. We love brands like TruRoots, Soul Sprout, Ezekiel bread, and One Degree Organics, which make the process as simple and quick as possible. You can also buy pre-sprouted nuts on Nuts.com.
What about overnight oats? If the phytic acid is in the soaking water and I'm consuming that, am I still getting the benefits of soaking the oats?
Well, yes and no. Many nutrition-minded people recommend soaking your oats overnight, rinsing them, and then preparing your oatmeal with fresh water in the morning. If you're using milk or simply want it to be super easy to grab-and-go in the morning, just make sure to add one simple ingredient: either lemon juice or apple cider vinegar, as this helps neutralize the phytic acid.
Liz Moody is an author, blogger and recipe developer living in Brooklyn, New York. She graduated with a creative writing and psychology degree from The University of California, Berkeley. Moody has written two cookbooks: Healthier Together: Recipes for Two—Nourish Your Body, Nourish Your Relationships and Glow Pops: Super-Easy Superfood Recipes to Help You Look and Feel Your Best. She also hosts the Healthier Together Podcast, where she chats with notable chefs, nutritionists, and best-selling authors about their paths to success. Her work has been featured in Vogue, Glamour, Food & Wine & Women’s Health.