You’d think it’d be simple. Eating grains is as old as… well, agriculture. But within the last century the industrialized grains we eat have become quite perverted. Refined flours have weaseled their way into just about every baked good: breads, cereals, crackers, desserts, you name it. But even whole grains — the so-called “healthy” alternative — are dangerously devoid of nutrients thanks to our modern methods of grain preparation.
In tight economic times, you want to squeeze every bit of nutrition out of your food as you possibly can. So, if you eat grains, consider this your guide to preparing them in the most nutritious way.
We all know that refined grains are bad for us. In the refining process, the bran and germ are removed from the whole grain, hence removing the fiber and most of the vitamins and minerals. Then the grains are further processed via mixing, bleaching, and brominating. Then, because poor people who switched to eating refined grain products started suffering from severe vitamin and mineral deficiencies, we now “enrich” the refined flour with synthetic vitamins and minerals. These synthetic nutrients can be hard on your liver. Even if they were substantially equivalent to naturally occurring vitamins and minerals (which I don’t believe!), the vitamin and mineral content artificially added back into enriched flours still does not measure up to the amount inherent in whole grains.
Without question, whole grains are nutritionally superior to refined grains. But, they can be even more nutrient dense if your prepare them according to traditional grain preparation techniques.
What Are Traditional Grain Preparation Techniques?
- Sprouting — This is when the whole grain kernel is sprouted. You can eat it as is, or you can dry it again before grinding it into flour.
- Soaking — This is when the already milled whole grain flour is soaked in an acidic medium like buttermilk, whey, yogurt, lemon juice, or vinegar before being cooked.
- Fermenting — This is when the grain is naturally fermented with wild yeast, as is the case with all sourdough breads.
Why Should You Care?
We can’t blame our parents or our grand parent’s generation for falling in love with convenience. Modern science promised to revolutionize our lives, reduce the amount of time and energy it took us to perform tasks, and give us more time to do the things we really enjoy. It also revolutionized our food, dramatically reducing the time we spent in the kitchen preparing wholesome meals.
But this convenience came at a cost. We lost many wonderful food traditions as Grandmas raved about frozen pizzas and stopped cooking from scratch. We stopped eating meals together around a table, instead opting for fast food on the go. And the traditional food preparation techniques that had nourished us for thousands of years fell victim to the efficiency of industrialization.
Now, instead of capturing wild yeast from the air through the long process of sourdough fermentation, we had quick rising baker’s yeast. And instead of soaking our whole grain flour in buttermilk overnight to produce wonderfully light and fluffy buttermilk pancakes in the morning, we could use a baking mix containing white flour and chemical leavening agents to achieve the same effect.
So what? How does this affect the food’s nutrition?
Grains are essentially the seeds of domesticated grasses. Seeds are meant to do one thing: propagate their species. They are built with multiple layers of protection in order to pass through the digestive systems of animals unharmed so that they can grow in a new place where the animals deposited them. Granted, we have a fairly acidic digestive tract when compared to your average chicken, so we do a better job at breaking down the grains.
But grains are still hard on our digestive systems, and we don’t digest any grain completely. Undigested particles of grain get stuck in the microvilli of our intestinal walls, building up with time, and ultimately undermining our ability to properly digest other foods because of this interference. If the interference becomes extreme, a host of intestinal and auto-immune disorders can result including leaky gut syndrome, gluten intolerance, celiac disease, and irritable bowel syndrome.
On top of all this, we have to battle phytic acid — the enzyme inhibitor present in grains that locks up all the minerals and vitamins until the seed is ready to germinate. When that phytic acid gets loose in our own guts, it binds with the vitamins and minerals present and keeps us from absorbing them. This can lead to a host of systemic problems, most notably dental decay.
It turns out that traditional grain preparation techniques solved these problems!
Soaking whole grain flour in an acidic medium overnight neutralizes the phytic acid by activating phytase — an enzyme present in the grain which breaks down the phytic acid, rendering the grain easier for us to digest.
Fermenting whole grain flour also neutralizes the phytic acid and does an even more thorough job breaking the grain down — to the point that many who suffer from gluten intolerance have no trouble eating traditionally prepared sourdough bread!
And sprouting grains not only neutralizes the phytic acid, but also radically increases the nutrients present. This is because the grain has essentially been turned into a vegetable. When comparing sprouted wheat to unsprouted wheat on a calorie-per-calorie basis, the sprouted wheat contains:
- four times the amount of niacin
- nearly twice the amount of vitamin B6 and folate
- five times the amount of vitamin C
- significantly more protein and fewer starches and sugars
How to Eat Grains
If you’re going to eat grains, you should really make sure they are traditionally prepared.
For many recipes, this consists of making a few minor and easy adaptations. For example, you can soak your rolled oats overnight in yogurt before adding water and cooking in the morning. This is how traditional cultures have always prepared their porridge, and it only takes a few extra minutes in addition to a little planning to eat this instead of quick cooking instant oatmeal. You can also do this with your breakfast quick breads like pancakes and biscuits simply by soaking the whole wheat flour in buttermilk overnight before adding the rest of the recipe’s ingredients and cooking in the morning.
Making traditional sourdough is something I have not ever attempted, although I’d love to try. I typically buy my sourdough from a local bakery that cooks it up the old-fashioned way. (Note: Most sourdough bread available at your grocery store is not traditionally prepared. It is your typical commercial yeast bread that includes something sour tasting. If “yeast” is listed as an ingredient, it’s not a real sourdough.) If you’d like to try making your own sourdough bread, you can find listings for sourdough starters on my Resources Page.
Perhaps the easiest way to adapt to eating healthier grains is to simply substitute sprouted grain flour for your typical whole grain flour. If you have a grain grinder, you can sprout the grain yourself, dry it, and grind it into fresh flour. (This is what I do whenever I occasionally eat grains.) Or, if you don’t have a grinder, you can buy sprouted grain flour online. Again, you can find listings for sprouted grain flour on my Resources Page.
(photo by aricee)