Sunday, January 25, 2009

How to Eat Grains (and beans, seeds, and nuts)

Well we know we are supposed to eat "whole grains" and avoid white flour and other highly processed carbs, like commercial cereal and instant oatmeal, for example... A nutritionist who gave me dietary advice right after I got diagnosed with PCOS and IR recommended that I avoid all bread except "Ezekiel" bread and occasionally, sourdough. She said something about it being "sprouted" so it was easier to digest. OK, I like whole wheat bread anyway, and turns out, this Ezekiel stuff is basically just like a heavy whole grain bread. So I have stuck to her advice (when I have stuck to good eating habits) and have even discovered a whole line of baked Ezekiel products, like tortillas, cinnamon raisin bread, and even English muffins. Lately I have been wanting to know more about the theory of sprouted grains that is behind this Ezekiel thing. The following is what I have been able to surmise in a brief review of a couple of excellent sources, Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon, and The Weston A. Price Foundation,

Refined grain products = BAD

Today’s modern white flour has a horror story to tell. The wheat is abused with chemicals from seed to harvest, then stored in warehouses where is it regularly fumigated with poison to kill insects. The germ and bran, which contain the fiber and essential fatty acids, are discarded before milling. High-speed mills reach over 400 degrees destroying any remaining nutrients. Commercially made whole wheat flour retains the germ and bran, but the high temperatures cause the oils to become rancid. This says nothing of the preservatives and conditioners that are added when making commercial baked goods, let alone the toxifying processing that gives us breakfast cereals. White flour is not only nutritionally void, it is actually toxic!

Whole grains = a little better
Organic or biodynamically grown grains will be free of the chemicals of standard processing. You can also buy 100% stone ground whole grain flour, which has not been exposed to the high temperatures – but because of the fatty acid content, it will go rancid. In fact, flour spoils in about the same time as milk, and should also be kept in the refrigerator or freezer. I have actually bought (on 2 different occasions)100% stone-ground whole wheat flour from the health food store before, and found it to be already rancid when I opened it at home. Good thing I don’t bake much! The bad thing about regular whole grains, though, is that they contain phytic acid, which binds with various minerals in the digestive tract and inhibits their absorption. This can lead to mineral deficiencies and even bone loss. Whole grains also have enzyme inhibitors, which keep the seed in a dormant state until germination, but also inhibit many of our enzymes, reducing digestion. Lastly, our guts just are not anatomically designed to be able to fully break down whole grains…animals that eat them have four stomachs and we only have one!

You have to watch out when buying “whole grain” baked goods because many of them will have white flour but call it “wheat flour,” which should not be confused for whole wheat flour. Also the flours are usually made with the traditional chemicals and high temperature milling practices, and contain hydrogenated oils, soy flour (which is loaded with antinutrients), and bad sugars like high fructose corn syrup.

Soaked and sprouted grains = the way to go
Studies of traditional societies who had good physical health showed that they ate all their grains after soaking, sprouting, and/or fermenting them with lactobacilli or other friendly microbes. These processes break down the phytic acid and neutralize the enzyme inhibitors. This also activates some enzymes in the grains, which increases the amounts of many vitamins, making them even more nutritious. Fermentation allows friendly microbes to help break down some of the difficult to digest parts, similar to the processes that occur in the first couple of stomachs of ruminant animals, making our job easier, as well. This is why old-fashioned, slow-rise breads from fermented starters, like organic sourdough, are also ok to eat. Likewise, the Ezekiel breads are actually a brand from a company called Food for Life, which makes all sprouted grain baked goods that are free of bad additives and chemicals as well.

Sprouting is the main thing that can increase the nutrient value in grains (and beans and seeds and nuts) – for example, Chinese sailors traditionally avoided scurvy by sprouting mung beans on their voyages, which produces vitamin C (and many other nutrients.) Many of the complex sugars that contribute to gas formation when eating beans and grains are broken down, and additional enzymes are produced in sprouting as well. Sprouting also inactivates aflotoxins, which are carcinogens found in grains.

Sprouted grains are best eaten cooked because when raw they do contain some irritating substances (which are intended to prevent animals from eating the young shoots). They can be ground and made into breads. Of course they can be steamed or put into soups, stews and casseroles as well. There are many different kinds of grains that can be nutritious when soaked, sprouted, and/or fermented, including wheat, oats, rye, barley, corn, rice, buckwheat, millet, spelt, kamut, teff, amaranth, and quinoa. Grains should be cooked slowly and for a long time, at relatively lower temperatures, to maintain nutrient content. Soaking can usually be completed overnight, sprouting can take 1 to 4 days, and fermenting can be achieved by soaking grains with fermented dairy products, or by creating starter dough, taking anywhere from a day to a week. Clearly, this kind of preparation takes a little planning ahead!

A last little note about sprouts, though, alfalfa sprouts are actually not good for you! I know, I know, you thought it was the ultimate health food! They actually contain canavanine, which is a toxic amino acid that can inhibit the immune system and contribute to the inflammation of arthritis and lupus, when eaten in don't go chowing down on the alfalfa sprouts!

A word about soy

(It falls into this category because is it a bean, in other words, a seed, and much more like a grain than anything else…and should be treated as such.)

The nutritionist told me to avoid soy products because of the estrogen-like compounds they contain, since one of the problems in PCOS is an excess amount of estrogen. I don’t need any more from my food! However, I have uncovered a few other disturbing things about this food that has been marketed as a health food for as long as I can remember.

Soybeans are very high in phytic acid and contain potent enzyme inhibitors, neither of which are neutralized by standard cooking. Remember, these things cause mineral malabsorption and reduce digestive efficiency. These are actually concentrated in commercial soy milk, which also contains carcinogens that are formed during processing. (not to mention, it usually has added sugar too) Soy is totally evil for anyone who has thyroid issues – it can severely aggravate them, creating a debilitating condition. Giving babies soy artificial infant milk can cause changes in pubertal timing as well as thyroid problems and immune system dysfunction.

But what about the claim that soy is healthy because asian peoples have eaten them for centuries and have notorious longevity? They actually only eat relatively small portions of fermented soy products, such as miso, natto, and tempeh… Have a look here for a good article about soy.


  1. Wow, I had no idea about soy! I don't eat it, myself, but I have several friends who swear by it and "brag" about giving soy products to their kids. Oh no!!

  2. I KNOW! Its so scary, our country has been sold a bill on soy, for the benefit of soy farmers... soybeans are planted to help recondition the soil (nitrogen fixing), so why not make a profit on the crop as well? There is a big demand for soybean oil, so the industry has figured out how to make fake (and harmful) food from the byproducts...and markets it as health food!

    In China, they have always planted soy in crop rotations, but they never ate it until they discovered fermentation techniques...

  3. Excellent post Holly! I really learned a lot about sprouted grains! Now you just need to post some recipes, lol. Much as I try, I REALLY don't like most whole grain breads. I'll have to try the Ezekiel brand. I must repeat, white bread = evil, white flour = evil...

  4. Alicia, maybe sourdough is the way to go for you as you transition to getting used to whole grain stuff...?? :)

  5. Oh I like sourdough so I could definitely use that! I'm going to try some of that ezekiel bread when we finish what we have no. Crossing my fingers that it tastes decent~