Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
3 Aug

Are Traditionally Prepared Grains Healthy?

sourdoughstarter“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.

Effect on gluten: Sprouting reduces gluten to some extent, but not by very much. Don’t count on it. A little bit goes a long way.

Fermentation

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).

Effect on gluten: No store bought garden variety sourdough you find is going to be gluten-free. A team from Italy was able to produce a gluten-free sourdough wheat bread by using specific bacterial strains from all over the world and subjecting the bread to many days of fermentation. The process was totally unfeasible for the home or average commercial baker. There’s also a guy who sells monthlong fermented sourdough bread out of LA-area farmers’ markets and claims celiacs can eat it without issue. Reviews on Yelp seem to corroborate. Maybe I’ll swing by his stand and give it a shot, but I’m skeptical. And besides, I’m personally more worried by WGA, which is biologically active at nanomolar concentrations and which may not be fully degraded by fermentation.

To Eat, or Not to Eat

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?

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I think that is one of the most significant info for me. And i am happy reading your article. However want to remark on some general issues, The web site taste is perfect, the articles is actually excellent : D. Good process, cheers

    Pilly wrote on December 26th, 2011
  2. It’s easier to eliminate grain from the diet than to goof around with these processes, IMO.

    Jon Griffith wrote on February 17th, 2012
  3. Mr. Sisson,
    The amount of knowledge you share is a beautiful thing!
    Every time i visit your site looking for answers, i find them

    Alvaro wrote on June 15th, 2012
  4. The growing and eating of grain gave birth to every major civilization known to man. Food, for me, is not just about being extraordinarily healthy but also about communicating with the culture. You cannot shun an entire food group, certainly not one that sustained your ancestors. I get kicking out boxed cereals, refined flour, sugar etc. but it just seems a bit too elitist and possibly even religious to suddenly decide grains are bad. Thousands and thousands of years we have fed ourselves ,sometimes exclusively, on this food – the staff of life. i would worry that to remove it from my diet completely would halt potential adaptability to this food. prepared sensitively grains are a good source of food. You can argue with 100 yrs of junk food and no one would argue the decision to eliminate all refined foods but to say grains are bad…I could argue equally that leafy greens are bad or that dairy is bad.

    Our ancestors built Empires on grains, built cities and magnificent buildings – they were not ailing, unmotivated people. What we need to throw out is refined foods and sugar. I’ve no doubt the reason most of you Paleo’s are now jumping up the walls with vibrancy is because whilst you switched to a paleo diet you inadvertantly cut all those crappy foods like boxed cereals and sugary cakes out too. But would you really not feel as healthy having a slice of wholemeal sourdough toast and butter each day? or a soaked oat porridge with cream and nuts?

    Lisa wrote on July 8th, 2012
  5. Speaking from personal experience… I had tried a paleo approach a few months ago after 12 years of vegetarianism. All was great for 5 months until I started craving bread like mad and caved in for a few months. Mind you, it was rice and 7 grain type finely sliced breads. In a few weeks, I had gained back almost all the weight I had lost with paleo, in the wrong places (belly and waist). Very distraught, I cut all back and re-introduced couscous, which I adore – same results, belly in the waist area. Grains might work for some people, I sure as hell wish it did for me, but more and more I see positive results in my body when I cut back on granola, couscous and wholegrain bread, which where my only indulgences. I know only have those on occasion, which is when I travel abroad and want to try a different food.

    Marcela wrote on July 8th, 2012
  6. Coorecting – FAT in the waist area – you know what I mean! (My weekly glass of red wine talking).

    Marcela wrote on July 8th, 2012
  7. I just bought a copy of The Art of Fermentation http://www.amazon.com/Art-Fermentation-Depth-Exploration-Essential/dp/160358286X . Fascinating book.

    He talks about fermenting grains in there, so I had to try it with oats, even though I’ve been grain-free for over a year. I simply put steel-cut oats in water and let them sit on the counter for about 36 hours. They then smelled like bread dough, and the resulting oatmeal had an acidic taste to it, but otherwise was similar to non-fermented. I could get used to the taste.

    But I was still hungry two hours later. So while it’s fun to experiment, and fermented grains may be healthier, they’re still little more than a big dump of sugar into your blood.

    I’m back to eggs for breakfast.

    Warren wrote on July 12th, 2012
  8. Hi Mark,

    Good read. Is this applicable to older forms of wheat? Like einkorn? I know modern wheat is a lot different to older forms but not sure if its anymore toxic than traditional wheat like einkorn.

    /mm

    solomani wrote on August 1st, 2012
  9. Some of the links in this great article are no longer working…would love to see a grand update of this. I send this link to people constantly to help them see their way with grains!

    Susan wrote on September 7th, 2012
  10. My body was very sick from eating what I thought was a healthy diet. Whole grains and low fat. For over a year I have been very strict Paleo. Body healed..no more inflammation and no more asthma. I just went to a Weston Price conference and have been fermenting and consuming lacto-fermented foods including sauerkraut and kombucha. I decided to experiment with soaked sprouted organic wheat…no flour. In moderation the bread caused no issues. Next, I soaked and sprouted Great Northern beans….ate a small amount and did just fine. We are happy to be able to have these foods added to our menu. At the conference lunch and dinner was included. I noticed that any grains or legumes that were served were never at the front of the buffet table but last allowing folks to fill their plates with salad, vegs, animal proteins, lacto-fermented sauerkraut or kimkche then the legumes or sprouted/soured bread in small amounts. And Kombucha was served at each meal. I visited with many that changed from traditional sad diets to WAPF traditonal diet and the4 health improvements were amazing. There were over 1700 in attendance. Still I love Paleo!!

    Sharon Cole wrote on November 26th, 2012
  11. The trick is to let others do the work for you, hence buy white rice and corn flour which have most of the antinutrients taken out of them. I don’t really see the point of buying eg. brown rice and going through all that trouble in detoxifying it instead of buying white rice which is cheaper to begin with!

    Kerrigan wrote on January 15th, 2013
  12. Hi Mark,

    great summary!
    I was looking for that study from italy that gave fermented gluten to celiacs.
    do you have a link? That would be great.
    Thanks in advance. :)

    nutriman wrote on February 6th, 2013
  13. Can somebody comment about corn and nixtamalization? I´m from Mexico, so I can say I am very sad to give up tortillas and corn :( I still have my fingers crossed hoping nixtamalization makes corn edible for humans, I´m day dreaming because of course we have the carbs issue :( But I was just hoping I could eat them once in a while. I´m ok giving up all other grains and legumes but corn? *sad sigh*

    http://www.cookingissues.com/2011/03/09/mesoamerican-miracle-megapost-tortillas-and-nixtamalization/

    http://homescale.wordpress.com/corntortillas/

    P.D. I do not care about any other corn products, just tortillas and masa. I will miss a freshly made tortilla out of the comal. :(

    Lila wrote on February 11th, 2013
  14. I appreciate your frank exposure of your biases and your success at even-handed treatment. This article brings together a lot of “lost” wisdom.

    Tom Haws wrote on June 24th, 2013
  15. There is a company promoting a fermented product that lets the combination of fruits, vegetables, beans and grains ferment for 6 months! Creating a supposed super wellness product. No wheat but it does include rye, brown rice, millet and numerous beans. All organic. Do you think 6 months destroys the bad guys?

    Judah wrote on August 4th, 2013
  16. I am from Russia, we are probably the largest population brought up primarily on grains. I have never even heard of “celiac disease” before i moved to US. All i can say, is that we started seeing obesity and cancer after the industrial revolution which brought vegetable oils, processing and other “civilazation” goodies, with its biggest spike when the iron curtain came down and our stores were flooded with new foods from the West – sodas, candies, etc.. All of my great grand parents lived well into their late 90’s and all they ate was pretty much rye bread and milk. They were very lean and full of vigor. Improper preparation of the grains (grains should be sprouted – before the invention of a harvester grains were left on the stems until they would naturally sprout themselves; and bread should be prepared as sourdough) and abcense of other fermented foods in the diet (like kvass/kefir/Sauerkraut etc) – will result in a weak gut and will give you problems with grain digestion. Add prosessed foods to this combination and you have a recipe for disaster. So, to answer whether grains are healthy – yes, very much so, if you know how to eat them. Our ansentors did, and just because we forgot how to is not a valid reason to blame the grains. Grains are a gift from God and they came with certain instructions for its use. You break the divine rule – you get sick. Besides, now even science shows that antioxidant content in grains can put to absolute shame any vegetable or fruit. I think there are other beneficial substances we still don’t even know about. Stanley Bass’ experiments on mice also support the idea that grains contain that “something” which is absolutely indispesible. I personally go by the rule that everything should be prepared traditionally and eaten in moderation.

    Tata wrote on August 14th, 2013
  17. Also, i wanted to add a couple of recent thoughts. My family is of old orthodox denomination, and we still use the calendar used before the 17th century. Today is year 7521 in my world, to be exact.
    Lets say that humans started eating grains 10,000 years ago. That makes me think that either people have been eating grains for a LONG time before that archeological assumption OR grains really plummeted the human intellect to the point that people were able to use a calendar shortly after.
    Besides, books like “Forbidden Archeology” list hundreds of examples which do not fit into common scientific thinking – like quite elaborate artefacts from layers older than 7 mil. years.
    I don’t know, i am not here for grain propaganda, American wheat is certainly a mutation monster not good for anything – i had to turn to sourcing the right type of grain and flour and bake my own stuff as i found the store choices to be a joke, i am just thinking, but my feeling is that the whole paleo diet rests on some premature thoughts about human evolution.

    Tata wrote on August 28th, 2013
  18. The preparation of the grain is not related to the cultures that were slim and relatively disease free. Yes, fermenting something like soy beans will result in natto, which is an excellent source of K2. Also fermenting or spouting grains is a good idea but the key is the other items these cultures were eating. They did not eat the amount of meat that the average American consumes. Other than the grains they were primarily consuming vegetables, berries, nuts or fruits.
    Eat natural, whole foods, do not fry or use very high heat to cook anything. Skipping the oil entirely, even EVO, is a good idea. Get your fats from avocado, nuts, olives or even eggs sometimes. Do not consume dairy and you will end up with stronger bones plus less artery blockage.

    Richard wrote on September 22nd, 2013
  19. I’ve skipped the comments; perhaps my answer is hidden in them. But the blog decries wheat for (I think) its “bastard protein” gluten. But I live in India now and the overwhelming fraction of (East) Indians live on wheat and/or rice as the staple. The (mostly whole) wheat is made into chapatis (which are basically grain tortillas). How does this work — how do they manage not to be, um, bastardized by the gluten? And the really poor traditionally used several kinds of millet (pearl millet, finger millet, jowar, etc.) as their staple grain. They’re made intp thick tortillas and eaten with cooked vegetables. Same question about this: what processing might have allowed them to survive/prosper with these as their principal staple despite their presumed bad qualities?

    ReignForrest wrote on January 23rd, 2014
  20. Finally some common sense. When hundreds of posts from degreed, intelligent “experts” continually argue with each other, supporting this view, tearing down that one, doesn’t that announce in clear terms that no one really knows anything? So far, my one unassailable criteria is, does a food trigger a craving? If it does, I need to find something else that gives me the same nutrition without the imbalances.

    Dave Meeks wrote on March 15th, 2014
  21. I use semolina to feed my baby but wondering do I need to soak it a day before to make it digest able? I did that and it smells yeasty even after cooking…can it be given to baby?

    Vishakha wrote on November 13th, 2014

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