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

Are Traditionally Prepared Grains Healthy?

“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 am a naturally slender person, always have been. I remember eating an entire box of Entenmann’s choclate eclairs in one sitting throughout my childhood, and never gaining an ounce. In fact, at 5′ 7″, I didn’t break 100lbs. until my senior year of high school. So it irks me to no end when I constantly hear (or read) of people equating good health with “being skinny”. They are not the same thing!!! I have been hovering around 123lbs. for the last 25 years. I had also been a vegetarian/ vegan for most of that time. I had horrible muscle tone and, despite being “skinny” had cellulite everywhere. I was gassy and bloated ALL the time. I always blamed it on female “stuff”. I am new to the whole paleo thing, (seriously, it’s only been a couple of weeks!) but I already notice that my bloat is gone, gas (sorry if this is TMI) is gone, and I am starting to see some muscle tone. I am convinced that this is the right way for me. I still have issues with regards to the ethics surrounding paleo eating. Having been vegetarian/ vegan, my reasons were not just nutritional. There are still MANY reasons to eschew meat. Most of them stemming from factory farming and the environmental and animal welfare implications, so it blows my mind when I read of paleo advocates eating things like veal (WTF???and this was on a very well known paleo blog!) If we are to be true hunter/ gatherers, we would not be locking baby cows in cages…just sayin’. I could go on, but I have already strayed too far off topic. Thanks for listening…

    Joanna wrote on August 7th, 2011
  2. Thanks for this, Mark. I’ve been wondering lately why some people can make the leap to be gluten-free, but don’t see the wisdom in going grain- and legume-free. Why spend all that time and energy trying to make something palatable when you can just have delectable real food? We’re not missing anything nutritionally, so I won’t bother. Gimme steak and veggies.

    Karen P. wrote on August 7th, 2011
  3. I live in Australia but born in Italy. I recently visited my homeland and was surprised by the slim women and men in Italy. So where were all the fat Italians? In Australia we are fat, but in Italy they are from from fat. One thing I did notice is that many of the towns now have supermarkets and Italians eat more western than traditional Mediterranean diets. Traditionally, Italians would kill their pigs in the Winter and eat sausages, proscuitto, salami and cook with lard throughout the winter. The prosciutto and salami would last into the summer months. Bread is eaten with salami and cheese, but not eaten as sandwiches and toasts as we eat. Fresh pasta took much effort, so it was not eaten as readily as we do. The wheat had to sown, harvested, milled and baked before they could eat their daily bread. Each step required energy expenditure. Dried pasta was bartered for in the major towns. It took many hours by foot, mule or horse to travel. Much energy was expended in order to feed themselves.

    Italians in Australia are far fatter than those in Italy, in particular those that have given up their vegetable gardens and their traditional foods. It seems to me that processed foods and the introduction of the supermarket has made the biggest impact both in Australia and Italy. As a child we did not eat pizza every day. Pizza was reserved for special occasions. But in Australia, I know many people that live on takeaway pizzas.

    One thing that I did noticed while stuck at the airport in Frankfurt was that there were no fat people. So what are they doing differently?

    Mirella wrote on August 8th, 2011
    • ‘…but not eaten as sandwiches and toasts…’ Bruschetta?

      Paul wrote on August 8th, 2011
  4. I agree with all the comments about grains – but would you please address “seed grains” like quiona, amaranth, buckwheat and millet?

    Are they ok?

    jodie wrote on August 8th, 2011
  5. I eat sprouted grains almost daily and have never had problems. No digestive upsets, malnutrition, or low energy – quite the opposite, actually!

    Just keeping the carbs at 140-150 does it for me. I occasionally go up about 5-10g on days when I’m super-active or have longer/harder workouts, in which case I find I’m a little hungrier. My weight has been low and steady for years. I’ve never had to *lose*, just maintain, and going 95% Primal (I say 95 because of the grains) made it much easier.

    Lisa wrote on August 10th, 2011
  6. Paleo man was dead at 40. How can you base so much on early man. Man has consumed grain a long time, longer than he has been using toxic salt. Do you have any scientific study that supports toxic grain. The arthritis society recommends grains, the Mayo clinic and on and on. Most Blue Zones use grains and beans.

    I say moderation! Balanced. I need to see one study!!!!

    Cam Watts wrote on August 10th, 2011
  7. My wife is an amateur authority on diet, but she would not ever admit to or claim that. It’s just over the years, everything that she has told me about diet turns out to be however true everything Mark says is (convoluted, huh?) That’s because everything that I read by Mark winds up explaining something my wife has told me. I can assure you that if she had the time, she would do all the soaking, and sprouting, and fermenting. She currently does make kombucha with these amazing mushrooms. Point is, I can testify that the time required to make grains worth eating is enormous. Sometimes during the few weeks in the summer when she isn’t teaching, she takes time to do one of these things. The amount of time it takes is unreal and not worth it.

    Ralph wrote on September 23rd, 2011
  8. If you look at certain cultures worldwide, like “third world” African tribes, or Papua New Guineans, the people are often quite skinny, but still have big bellies.

    Why?? A diet based on carbs, and not enough protein! The thin/bloated-belly look is a symptom of malnutrition.

    More protein, fewer carbs all the way!

    Ben wrote on September 29th, 2011
    • Indigestible fibers is what creates bloated bellies because the indigestible fibers keep getting fermented and fermented in your gut until the end of time (or digestive tract), creating MASSIVE gas.
      They also pile up and stretch the colon…

      They would need 4 stomachs to break down cellulose.

      Arty wrote on October 29th, 2011
  9. Okay, I’ll say it straight up, I’m here to vent only! lol

    I am mad at myself that after 1.6 years of eating primally I have now fallen off the primal wagon and rolled down grain alley!
    Been munching on freshly baked multi grain bread for the last 4 days and having a giant guilt complex.
    Also been binging on grapes like mad (it’s the season what can I say) and the seeds from the multi-grain and grapes together are tearing me a new one.
    Anyways, thought I’d confess somewhere, people around me don’t wanna hear it…lol.
    Back on the primal wagon tomorrow before the digestive time bomb goes off!!!

    Issabeau wrote on October 29th, 2011
  10. I’m confused on the soaking.

    With beans, you soak the beans and pour out the toxins with the soaked water. Then, you pour fresh water in and cook.

    With grains, the other recipe sites and books just seem to soak it then cook it. Wouldn’t this just reabsorb the toxins and be cooked into the breads?

    Jaybird wrote on November 19th, 2011
  11. 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
  12. It’s easier to eliminate grain from the diet than to goof around with these processes, IMO.

    Jon Griffith wrote on February 17th, 2012
  13. 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
  14. 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
  15. 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
  16. Coorecting – FAT in the waist area – you know what I mean! (My weekly glass of red wine talking).

    Marcela wrote on July 8th, 2012

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