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When it’s time to germinate, a seed releases enzymes that start to break its nutrients down into building blocks that will help it grow into a plant. The cool thing is that these enzymes are essentially beginning the work of digestion for us, Sorrells says. “The enzymes are cutting the carbs and proteins and lipids down into smaller molecules,” Carson explains.
The complex carbohydrates, like starch, begin to break down into sugars; the proteins start to break down into amino acids and peptides; and the fats gets broken down into fatty acids, Sorrells explains.
This is why some people find that they have an easier time digesting sprouted grains, like sprouted wheat (or products made from it) than regular whole grains. “A lot of people find them so much more tummy friendly,” Carson says. This makes sense: the plant enzymes are making it so our own digestive enzymes have to do less work. (Pretty clutch, right?)
The thing is that while there is indeed research showing that sprouting can increase the digestibility of the starch and protein in some grains, it’s kind of an unpredictable process. How much breakdown happens varies tremendously depending on the seed you’re starting with, the sprouting conditions, and how long the seed is allowed to sprout for, Lynn James, M.S., R.D.N., L.D.N., senior extension educator at the Food, Families & Health and Food Safety & Quality teams at Penn State Extension, tells SELF. And the variability in the sprouting process leads to an equal amount of variability in the increased digestibility of the grain, James says.
So when it comes to whether sprouted grains will be easier for you yourself to digest? “It’s entirely possible,” Sorrells says—but also tricky to say. In addition to the sprouting variability, “No two humans are alike, and people have different sensitivities and [digestive] systems,” Sorrells says. “It’s hard to know until you actually try it.” But also, Carson points out, if you have no trouble digesting regular bread then you may not even notice a difference at all.
Okay, so what about the nutritional value? Is it higher in sprouted grains? In theory, potentially, yeah. In addition to breaking down some of those big energy reserves inside the seed, the sprouting process may increase the micronutrient content of the grain. For instance, many grains contain a substance called phytic acid that binds to certain minerals (like iron, calcium, and zinc), making them less bioavailable to us because we don’t have the enzymes needed to break phytic acid down, Sorrells explains. Sprouting can actually begin to break down some of that phytic acid for us, making the minerals more available, some studies have found. Sprouting may also increase the levels of some vitamins, like vitamin E and B.
But IRL, it is again tricky to make hard-and-fast determinations about the nutritional advantages sprouting leads to.
Which vitamin levels might go up and to what degree really depends not just on the grain but the exact sprouting conditions, James says. This is pretty clear when you look at the studies collected in a recent meta-review. Some show sizable increases, while others found more moderate, or zero changes in vitamin content after sprouting And crucially, as James notes, there is a lack of human studies showing that this increased bioaccessibility actually leads to increased vitamin and mineral absorption.
A final health-related reason many people prefer sprouted grain bread (or bagels or english muffins) is that these products are more likely to be low in or free of added sugar.