Traditional Preparation Methods Improve Grains' Nutritive Value

Soaking or Germinating Grains

The most basic method of preparing grains is prolonged soaking in water, followed by cooking. This combination reduces the level of water-soluble and heat-sensitive toxins and anti-nutrients such as tannins, saponins, digestive enzyme inhibitors and lectins, as well as flatulence factors. It also partially degrades phytic acid, which is a potent inhibitor of mineral absorption, an inhibitor of the digestive enzyme trypsin and an enemy of dental health (1). This improves the digestibility and nutritional value of grains as well as legumes.

I prefer to soak all grains and legumes for at least 12 hours in a warm location, preferably 24. This includes foods that most people don't soak, such as lentils. Soaking does not reduce phytic acid at all in grains that have been heat-treated, such as oats and kasha (technically not a grain), because they no longer contain the phytic acid-degrading enzyme phytase. Cooking without soaking first also does not have much effect on phytic acid.

The next level of grain preparation is germination. After soaking, rinse the grains twice per day for an additional day or two. This activates the grains' sprouting program and further increases their digestibility and vitamin content. When combined with cooking, it reduces phytic acid, although modestly. Therefore, most of the minerals in sprouted whole grains will continue to be inaccessible. Many raw sprouted grains and legumes are edible, but I wouldn't use them as a staple food because they retain most of their phytic acid as well as some heat-sensitive anti-nutrients (2).

Grinding and Fermenting Grains

Many cultures around the world have independently discovered fermentation as a way to greatly improve the digestibility and nutritive value of grains (3). Typically, grains are soaked, ground, and allowed to sour ferment for times ranging from 12 hours to several days. In some cases, a portion of the bran is removed before or after grinding.

In addition to the reduction in toxins and anti-nutrients afforded by soaking and cooking, grinding and fermentation goes much further. Grinding greatly increases the surface area of the grains and breaks up their cellular structure, releasing enzymes which are important for the transformation to come. Under the right conditions, which are easy to achieve, lactic acid bacteria rapidly acidify the batter. These bacteria are naturally present on grains, but adding a starter makes the process more efficient and reliable.

Due to some quirk of nature, grain phytase is maximally active at a pH of between 4.5 and 5.5, which is mildly acidic. This is why the Weston Price foundation recommends soaking grains in an acidic medium before cooking. The combination of grinding and sour fermentation causes grains to efficiently degrade their own phytic acid (as long as they haven't been heat treated first), making minerals much more available for absorption (4, 5, 6, 7). This transforms whole grains from a poor source of minerals into a good source.

The degree of phytic acid degradation depends on the starting amount of phytase in the grain. Corn, rice, oats and millet don't contain much phytase activity, so they require either a longer fermentation time, or the addition of high-phytase grains to the batter (8). Whole raw buckwheat, wheat, and particularly rye contain a large amount of phytase (9), although I feel wheat is problematic for other reasons.

As fermentation proceeds, bacteria secrete enzymes that begin digesting the protein, starch and other substances in the batter. Fermentation reduces lectin levels substantially, which are reduced further by cooking (10). Lectins are toxins that can interfere with digestion and may be involved in autoimmune disease, an idea championed by Dr. Loren Cordain. Grain lectins are generally heat-sensitive, but one notable exception is the nasty lectin wheat germ agglutinin (WGA). As its name suggests, WGA is found in wheat germ, and thus is mostly absent in white flour. WGA may have been another reason why DART participants who increased their wheat fiber intake had significantly more heart attacks than those who didn't. I don't know if fermentation degrades WGA.

One of the problems with grains is their poor protein quality. Besides containing a fairly low concentration of protein to begin with, they also don't contain a good balance of essential amino acids. This prevents their efficient use by the body, unless a separate source of certain amino acids is eaten along with them. The main limiting amino acid in grains is lysine. Legumes are rich in lysine, which is why cultures around the world pair them with grains. Bacterial fermentation produces lysine, often increasing its concentration by many fold and making grains nearly a "complete protein", i.e. one that contains the ideal balance of essential amino acids as do animal proteins (11, scroll down to see graph). Not very many plant foods can make that claim. Fermentation also increases the concentration of the amino acid methionine and certain vitamins.

Another problem with grain protein is it's poorly digested relative to animal protein. This means that a portion of it escapes digestion, leading to a lower nutritive value and a higher risk of allergy due to undigested protein hanging around in the digestive tract. Fermentation followed by cooking increases the digestibility of grain protein, bringing it nearly to the same level as meat (12, 13, 14, 15). This may relate to the destruction of protease inhibitors (trypsin inhibitors, phytic acid) and the partial pre-digestion of grain proteins by bacteria.

Once you delve into the research on traditional grain preparation methods, you begin to see why grain-eating cultures throughout the world have favored certain techniques. Proper grain processing transforms them from toxic to nutritious, from health-degrading to health-giving. Modern industrial grain processing has largely eschewed these time-honored techniques, replacing them with low-extraction milling, extrusion and quick-rise yeast strains.

Many people will not be willing to go through the trouble of grinding and fermentation to prepare grains. I can sympathize, although if you have the right tools, once you establish a routine it really isn't that much work. It just requires a bit of organization. In fact, it can even be downright convenient. I often keep a bowl of fermented dosa or buckwheat batter in the fridge, ready to make a tasty "pancake" at a moment's notice. In the next post, I'll describe a few recipes from different parts of the world.

Further reading:

How to Eat Grains
A Few Thoughts on Minerals, Milling, Grains and Tubers
Dietary Fiber and Mineral Availability
A New Way to Soak Brown Rice