“People from Africa, Asia, and Latin America eat lots of grains and manage to stay skinny, so what’s the deal?”
You know this line of questioning. We’ve all heard it. We’ve probably all pondered it. It may have even stumped a few of you, left you stuttering and stammering for a quick explanation. But by the time you think of a reply (if you even have one), the moment has passed and they have “won” the argument. A briefly open mind was now closed.
But let’s be honest: it’s a valid question, and a tough one at that. We can’t just avoid the tough questions. So let’s take this head on.
Like always, the answer is multifaceted. Health is not reliant on a single feature. It’s not just diet, it’s exercise, stress, sleep, family, community, genetics, infectious burden. Within diet, it’s not just what is eaten, but also what isn’t eaten. It’s how food is prepared, whether it’s cooked or eaten raw. Find me a culture who thrived on grains as a staple food, and I’ll find you a culture who came up with some elaborate preparation method to mitigate the antinutrients and enhance the nutrient bioavailability of those grains. Find me a culture whose health thrived on toxin-rich grains as a staple without mitigating said toxins, and I’ll be waiting a long time (and observing the United States through smug Primal shades while I wait).
In today’s post, I’m going to explore the primary reason for why so many traditional cultures who ate grains managed to stay thin and relatively free of degenerative diseases: traditional grain preparation, including soaking, sprouting, and fermentation. If you’re familiar with the Weston A. Price Foundation‘s stance on grains, you’re probably aware of these preparation methods. Each step alters the nutritional experience of the grain to varying degrees, making it more digestible, less toxic, and tastier. I for one am not willing to go through hoops to make grass babies go down easier, but the process is nonetheless extremely interesting. And in the future, if any of my readers want to give grains a shot, at least they’ll do it right, or as right as it can get. As I always say, the only reason to make grains any part of your diet is as a cheap source of calories that converts to glucose very quickly.
You know how cool parents will drink or smoke with their teens to teach them mature consumption of potentially illicit substances before they learn to do it all wrong it in the wild world? This post is kinda like that.
Let’s first do a quick rundown of what exactly we’re trying to avoid, deactivate, or mitigate. We gotta know what we’re up against.
Phytic acid: Phytic acid is the main storage form of phosphorus in grains. That’s awesome for the grain, which needs phosphorus, but there’s a catch. Phytate also binds to many minerals, including zinc, magnesium, calcium, and iron, to name several. And, since non-ruminants don’t possess phytase, which digests phytate and releases the bound minerals for easy absorption, eating large quantities of phytate-containing foods results in mineral deficiencies for meat-eating apes. These deficiencies, taken to an extreme, can manifest as tooth decay, which might explain why early grain eating populations had worse teeth than the hunter-gatherers who preceded them.
Enzyme inhibitors: Grains are seeds that require certain wet, nutrient rich conditions for proper growth. Spontaneous germination is counterproductive (you don’t want your children settling down in an area with high crime and high unemployment, do you?), so enzyme inhibitors prevent it. When moisture abounds (like, when soaking grains), the inhibitors are deactivated and sprouting occurs. So why should we care? Certain other enzyme inhibitors also inhibit our ability digest the grains. If you’re relying on grains as a dietary staple, you can’t afford not to wring every last drop of nutrition out of them.
Lectins: I covered lectins fairly comprehensively in a previous post, so I’ll keep it brief. Lectins are nature’s pesticides, protecting the tiny grain from predation. They can perforate the intestinal lining, disrupt our immune systems, and there’s even evidence that they bind to leptin receptors in the hypothalamus (potentially triggering leptin resistance).
Gluten: You know this guy. Found in wheat, rye, and barley, he’s a real bastard of a protein – and possibly not just to celiacs. There’s some evidence that true fermentation can break down gluten, but not all of it. Some Italian researchers used a unique blend of bacterial species to break down 99% of the gluten in sourdough bread, but it was under strict, extremely contrived laboratory conditions. More on that later.
So, how do traditional cultures take care of the aforementioned?
Soaking and Sprouting
I’ve written about soaking nuts and seeds before, and soaking grains is the same idea. The grains are covered with water, placed in a preferably warm place, and soaked for between 12 and 24 hours. There’s not much more to it than that. After soaking, you drain them, rinse them, and let the grains sit out for a couple days. To get grains to sprout, rinse and drain them a couple times each day until sprouts emerge.
Effect on phytate: If the grain contains phytase, some of the mineral-binding phytic acid will be deactivated, but not much. And if the grain has been heat-treated, which destroys phytase, or it contains very little phytase to begin with, the phytic acid will remain completely intact. Overall, neither soaking nor sprouting deactivates a significant amount of phytate.
Effect on enzyme inhibitors: Well, since the seed has been placed in a wet medium and allowed to sprout, the enzyme inhibitors are obviously mostly deactivated. Digestion is much improved (cooking will improve it further).
Effect on lectins: The evidence is mixed, and it seems to depend on the grain. Sprouted wheat, for example, is extremely high in WGA, the infamous wheat lectin. As the wheat grain germinates, the WGA is retained in the sprout and is dispersed throughout the finished plant. In other grains, sprouting seems more beneficial, but there’s always some residual lectins that may need further processing to deactivate.
After soaking and grinding, grains are traditionally mixed with a starter culture or allowed to wild ferment. Starter cultures often include whey, kefir, yogurt, or left over fermentation medium from the previous batch. Wild fermentation occurs when the grain mixture employs bacteria already present on the grains, or picks up wild yeasts and bacteria from the environment. Both methods are far more effective than just soaking and sprouting at deactivating antinutrients and improving digestibility. Plus, fermentation lends interesting flavors to and enhances the shelf-life of the resultant food (which was extremely valuable in the days before refrigeration and canning).
Effect on phytate: Remember phytase? It’s the enzyme that deactivates phytate, and it really gets cooking during fermentation. In grains that contain high amounts of phytase, like wheat, rye, and buckwheat (technically a pseudo-cereal, but close enough), a day of fermentation deactivates most of the phytate. To degrade the phytate in low-phytase grains, however, the fermentation time must be extended. Adding small amounts of phytase-containing grain to the mix will also speed up the process. Increasing the temperature also improves phytate breakdown. In millet, a low-phytase grain, it took 72 hours to completely degrade the phytate. In wheat, it took ten hours to reach a maximum of 88.8% phytate reduction using a specific bacterial strain. Other strains resulted in reductions of between 28% and 86% (with most reaching above 80%). Standard quick rise baker’s yeast only reduced 16% of phytate (that’s what 99% of wheat eaters are eating nowadays, remember!). Ten hours may not always be enough, however – another fermentation study found that at 48 hours, phytate in wheat was still degrading.
Effect on enzyme inhibitors: Fermentation also significantly reduces enzyme inhibitor activity. A few examples would be prudent, since fermentation has different effects on different enzyme inhibitors in different grains. In 24 hour traditional sorghum fermentation, both trypsin inhibitor and amylase inhibitor (which impedes starch digestion) were reduced by up to 58% and 75%, respectively. In millet, a 48 hour fermentation was required to completely deactivate amylase inhibitor. As I mentioned in the last section, one study found that 48 hours of fermentation resulted in maximum wheat starch digestibility, presumably by deactivating amylase inhibitor.
Effect on lectins: Fermentation reduces lectin load fairly comprehensively across the board, but it might take longer than you can spare. In lentils (I know, not a grain, but with similar antinutrient issues), 72 and 96 hours of fermentation at 42 degrees C eliminated 98% and 97.8% of the lectins, respectively. Specific info on grain lectin breakdown due to fermentation is sparse. Overall, fermentation appears to be pretty effective at reducing lectins (and cooking reduces them further).
Some may turn up their noses at agrarian people for relying on a “sub-optimal” grain as staple food, but not me. Yeah, I’m definitely no fan of grains, and I think avoiding them is one of the biggest positive steps a person can take for their overall health. That’s beside the point. As a technical feat, I find the taming of the grain incredibly impressive, a testament to mankind’s awesome ability to adapt to and overcome adversity. Any other animal that switches over to a new staple food that prevents nutrient absorption, causes intestinal perforation, and increases inflammation had better develop some physiological adaptions to deal with the antinutritive factors, and quickly, if it doesn’t want to die out or be forced to move to a new habitat. A human, though? Humans figured out a way to preserve the toxic food, make it palatable, drastically reduce its antinutrient content, and make it more digestible, thanks to the big efficient brain inside our skulls. It’s not physiology (well, kind of), it’s not some advantageous mutation that’s naturally selected and saves the day. It’s human ingenuity, knowhow, knowledge, and wisdom. It is manipulation of the environment to suit our immediate needs. That gets us into trouble on occasion, but you can’t say it isn’t impressive.
That said, will I start soaking, sprouting, and fermenting big batches of grains in my kitchen? No. It’s way too much work and it’s unclear whether the toxins are fully mitigated (and in the case of wheat, they almost certainly are not). I’ll admit that crusty sourdough bread can be a nice occasional treat when eating out, but it’s not something I’m interested in eating on a regular basis. Furthermore, I’m not missing out on any magic nutrient by avoiding grains, but I am avoiding the elaborate prep work required to make them moderately edible (and the toxins that may or may not be deactivated). For the billions that rely on grains for sustenance, these traditional preparation methods are necessary. Choosing between potentially toxic food and starvation, you choose the food – no question – and then you do your best to make it more nutritious. For those of us who don’t need to make that choice, for whom bread is an extracurricular treat, I think removing the risk altogether by simply avoiding the potentially toxic food is a better move. And if it’s carbohydrate you’re after, stick with safe starch sources like roots, tubers, or even white rice (the sole grain that requires no elaborate processing).
But at least you know there’s a better way than what most people do with grains nowadays. At least there’s somewhat of a middle ground for people who won’t relinquish the grass babies.
What about you guys? Do you think you’ll ever experiment with traditional grain preparation?
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.