Bread can be the staff of life, but the specifics of its main ingredients' nutritional benefits have been the source of heated debate.
Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management, an almost forgotten 19th century classic of Victorian middle-class identity, was one of the first to note that whole-grain bread was more nutritious than "white" versions, and the process of bolting—separating the endosperm from the bran and germ—deprived the flour of beneficial nutrients.
But more recently, there are those who believe that modern milled-wheat bread leans on the crutches of time-saving ingredients, and milled grains of any color are nutritionally deficient when compared to sprouted grains.
Sprouted grain breads of all types, flavors and sizes are selling well across the country. Most sprouted grain bread is refrigerated or frozen, but it's available fresh in some areas. And while it's still a niche product, the category has a devoted clientele in many natural foods retail stores. For example, at Deep Roots Market in Greensboro, N.C., grocery manager Blake Saulkner says she orders as many as 30 cases per week for her 10,000-square-foot store.
What's All The Ruckus?
Jean Hediger makes whole wheat flour in northern Colorado the same way it's been done for many millennia. She grows and dries organic wheat berries, and then the sifted whole grain is ground between two flat pieces of stone, which turn against each other with only an eighth-inch between them. "It's the same process the Egyptians used," Hediger says, "only the stones we're using are behind a motor instead of hand-powered."
The wheat is "washed" before being milled, but it is only sifted through varying sizes of wire mesh to remove bits of harvested byproducts; no water is involved. "Once grain is harvested, moisture of any sort is an enemy," Hediger says.
That's where proponents of sprouted grain bread differ with those who make milled-wheat products. Michael Girkout, founder and president of Rohnert, Calif.-based Alvarado Street Bakery, believes that our bodies don't completely digest dry, milled flour. "The sprouting process allows the body to more readily assimilate the nutrients and minerals and vitamins that are naturally found in whole grain," he says. "It's just more digestible."
Soaking in water, which begins the germination process, changes the composition of grains and seeds in a number of ways, says Sally Fallow, author of Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats (New Trends Publishing, 1999). Sprouting increases vitamin B content, along with other nutrients such as carotene and vitamin C. Soaking wheat berries until they sprout also neutralizes enzyme inhibitors present in all seeds. Maybe most important, sprouting neutralizes phytic acid, a substance present in the bran of all grains that inhibits the human body's absorption of calcium, magnesium, iron, copper and zinc.
The calories in grains have sustained human societies for thousands of years, but "grains require careful preparation because they contain a number of antinutrients that can cause serious health problems," Fallow says. Phytic acid is part of a seed's system of preservation, but the organic compound can wreak havoc on the digestive tract. Many mild wheat allergies are likely just because of the body's inability to properly digest milled wheat.
Germination increases the enzyme activity in sprouted grains as much as six times compared to milled grains, according to Edward Howell, M.D., author of Food Enzymes for Health and Longevity (Lotus Press, 1994). This is due to the proteolytic release of the enzymes by inactivation of enzyme inhibitors found in all seeds. Soaking the seeds allows proteases within to neutralize the inhibitors and release the bonded enzymes.
When a miller grinds a dry, dormant wheat seed, that's all the baker has to work with, Girkout says. "During the sprouting process, the amalaze enyzme activity that takes place begins to predigest the grain, starts to break it down, and it changes from a hard, dormant seed to a living, breathing plant."
A Range Of Choices
There are any number of commercially available breads made from sprouted grains. The most basic variety is manna bread, in which grains are sprouted, mashed and then mixed with a selection of flavorings, such as carrot and raisin. This method eschews any leavening agents, so the baked loaf is dense and moist, and there's no crunchy or dark crust on top.
A second method, which most closely mirrors the baking process of standard milled-wheat loaves, simply substitutes sprouted grains for milled ones in the recipe. Wheat berries are soaked, begin to sprout and are ground to a mush. Yeast and some type of sweetener are added to make the dough rise, and the loaf bakes lighter and fluffier than manna bread. A rich crust also develops, making the bread look and taste similar to regular bread.
A third style incorporates aspects of both methods. Natural leavening techniques, rarely employed by commercial bakers these days, allow this method to use no yeast or sugar, which can cause gastrointestinal issues for some. Ground flour is added to water and allowed to sit in cool, dark storage for 12 to 15 days. Periodically, more milled wheat is added and the "starter" is mixed.
The starter "comes alive," and when mixed with sprouted grains, delivers a risen dough, says Lynn Gordon, president of Minneapolis-based French Meadow Bakery. Because people rather than machines tend to the dough, the whole process is so labor intensive that if her company sought the margin many other food manufacturers get it would have to charge $10 a loaf.
"Yeast is just a time saver in the baking process," she says. "In the 19th century it was outlawed in France, because they thought of it as cheating."
Sprouted grain breads need to be refrigerated or frozen for sufficient shelf life, so the products are usually merchandised far away from other breads in the bakery section. That has its ups and downs.
At Deep Roots, Saulkner says sprouted grain breads have always sold well, despite being in the refrigerated case. Her store has a bread area in its refrigerated section, so consumers who know what they're looking for have a range of choices. But a product that's chilled instead of on the bread racks does confuse some shoppers, mostly those new to the product. "Thinking of it as just a bread helps the new consumers," he says.
Alvarado's Girkout says merchandising his sprouted grain bread away from other breads can be a plus and a minus. "It's definitely a challenge, but it provides a unique opportunity" to distance his bread from the competition.
Gordon, however, sees it purely as a benefit. Not being sold next to other breads helps consumers understand that her company's product is distinctive. "It's a different product altogether from bread," she says. "It is and it isn't. It doesn't act like bread (in a consumer's body). It tastes like bread, but it does everything a protein bar does."
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 3/p. 72, 76