Sprouted Grains: Not So Fast!

Image courtesy of SOMMAI at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of SOMMAI at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Understandably, the baking and cereal products industries are very excited about sprouted grains these days. Well, it is a new, healthy and otherwise compelling narrative about whole grain foods and other seeds, like beans. Major companies such as Kellogg’s (Kashi) and J.M. Smucker (Enray) have already committed themselves to what they perceive to be a band-wagon growth opportunity. Raw food enthusiasts are big on sprouts. But, call me contrarian! There is ample reason not to get too excited too quickly about sprouted grains. They provide a good story line, but nutritional claims, cost, product safety and consumer awareness remain serious barriers to growth. New market exuberance may be premature.

“Sprouted grains” was a big big topic of discussion at the recently concluded AACC International’s (i.e., cereal chemists) Annual Meeting in Minneapolis, MN (October 19-22). On the plus side, sprouted grain breads and other cereal products have been gaining a lot of attention, at least in the food press. The arguments for sprouted grains are primarily nutritional, though good taste very importantly factors in, as well. Sprouting is the process whereby seeds, when moisturized, arouse themselves from dormancy and reconfigure themselves for rapid growth. The seed’s fiber, starch and phytates break down, releasing antioxidants, sugars and minerals. Starch breaks down into simple sugars that either sweeten the sprout and can be flushed away reduce glycemic value. Some vitamin contents are increased. The process typically involves soaking seeds between 1 – 4 days to induce sprouting, followed by a heat-kill step to knock out enzymatic activity, and milling to create a flour.

Here are some of the concerns cited at the conference:

  1. The process of adding water, holding, kilning (i.e removing the added water), and milling is expensive. Yes, the beer industry can do it, but beer isn’t cheap and it enjoys deservedly high margins. Sprouted grains are not low cost ingredients.
  2. Yes, nutritional value is enhanced, but by what standards? Bob Hanson of Briess Malt & Ingredients Co., noted in a highly detailed and engaging presentation that sprouting is a highly variable process for which nutritional value will vary greatly according to the length of time and other sprouting conditions used (i.e., was the seed germinated for four hours or four days?). Developing uniform, standardized levels of nutritional enhancement for which suppliers and nutritional labels will be held accountable remains a major challenge. Plus, as pointed out by retired-but-not-really nutrition professor Julie Jones, an academic for whose intellectual rigor and honesty I retain enormous respect even when we disagree, given the cost and use level of sprouted grains, how will their enhanced nutritional value make a significant dietary difference? We don’t know, for example, how effective the released polyphenolic antioxidants (likely released from the breakdown of arabinoxylan bran structures) are in human physiology. Nor do we know how to balance the potential cancer-inhibiting actions of phytate against the mineral-releasing breakdown of phytates during sprouting.
  3. Probably the most important challenge is safety. Grains and beans come in from the field with imbedded toxins and trailing pathogenic microbes. In some cases, the microbes are imbedded inside the seeds. Sprouting provides an ideal medium for their outgrowth. The beer industry resolves this by boiling the seed wort; the baking industry has no such option. According to University of Nebraska food science professor Andreia Bianchini, kilning of the sprouted grains does not significantly reduce microbial counts. Although reading between the lines of the Hanson presentation suggested to me that Briess has resolved this problem to its own satisfaction, the consensus appeared to be that sprout safety remains a serious liability issue for the industry at large. I have no doubt that good solutions exist (I can think of some off the top of my head), but much work still needs to be done.
  4. Finally, there is consumer awareness and demand. Sprouted grains are not new – they’ve been percolating in the cereal foods industry for at-least a decade, promoted by companies such as Food For Life Baking Company’s Ezekiel bread, which has developed a loyal following. A look at Internet chatter trends for “sprouted grains” provides the following profile:

Sprouted Grain TrendAlert OCT-15This graph shows a steadily increasing rise in total Internet chatter (blue line) over time, combined with low VIC TrendAlert™ volatility (red line). Accelerating growth in Internet chatter combined with low volatility is indicative of stable growth and should be promising. That’s the good news. However, at this time, the term “sprouted grain” is generating only 25,000 to 30,000 Google hits per month. Compare that to “rice” (~1.2 million hits per month) or “quinoa” (~600,000 hits per month), and you realize quickly that “sprouted grain” has a long way to go before it becomes the talk of the town. Internet chatter matters.

Sprouted grain is an interesting and promising ingredient category with a compelling narrative. Here’s my take: its time hasn’t yet come!