Some say soaking grains increases nutrient content and makes whole grains more digestible. Others say that’s bunk. I looked into the issue extensively via research, personal success stories, historical evidence, Scripture and scientists themselves – attempting to find credible sources beyond the book Nourishing Traditions.
What is Unhealthy About Whole Grains?
- Grains are seeds. (All this information therefore, pertains to legumes, nuts and seeds as well.)
- Seeds are meant to pass through the system relatively undigested so they can be planted elsewhere (think in nature).
- To make it possible for seeds to pass through undigested, there are some anti-nutrients built in to make them difficult to digest.
- Seeds also need to be preserved until the time is right for sprouting, so they have certain compounds that stop the active enzyme activity of germination.
- These compounds also serve to hinder active enzyme activity in your digestive system.
In other words, when eating whole grains, you may not gain the benefits of all the minerals contained in the grain, PLUS it’s possible that they hinder your digestion of other things. No fair! (Read more on soaking grains basics.)
What is Healthy About Whole Grains?
The whole grain has all the nutrients God put into grains: fiber, protein, healthy fats, and lots of vitamins and minerals. The straight starch in white flour, in the absence of the whole, is quickly turned into simple sugars in your body.
In my personal opinion, if God created a food with certain parts, those parts should be eaten together, unless there is a clear reason to do otherwise. In the case of whole grains, however, it may become a question not of “separated or united” but of “how to prepare”.
See more of the healthy parts of whole grains and a neat explanation of why we should avoid whole grain breakfast cereals (further down the post), including a description of how the “extrusion” process for cereals really works from an insider to the industry.
The Biblical Take on Grains
This post on grains in the Bible really says it all, and if you’re interested in the topic, I highly recommend you read the whole thing. A very incomplete summary is this:
Some biblical references to grains:
- God told Adam he would toil and work the earth to survive. (Gen 3:17)
- Joseph saved the nations by storing grain to prepare for the famine. (Gen 41)
- The Israelites in slavery were commanded to rid the house of leaven and eat unleaved bread for the feat of the Passover, a tradition Jews also continue to this day. (Ex 12)
- The prophet Elijah lived for a year on bread in the home of a widow. (1 Kings 17)
- Christ said, “I am the Bread of Life.” (Jn 6)
- After the Resurrection, Christ’s followers recognized Him in the breaking of the bread. (Lk 24:30) He had bread on the fire in Jn 21:9 when He greeted His best friends, the apostles.
God didn’t say to Adam, “Go hunt for your food.” The first animal was killed in the Garden of Eden as a result of man’s sin (to make clothing for Adam and Eve in their shame, Gen 3:21). That was also the point of agriculture, biblically, when Adam’s punishment for the Fall included, “By the sweat of your face shall you get bread to eat.” He had to toil in the fields over the cursed ground, just as Eve now had pain in childbirth. Both man and woman have to labor to bear fruit. Neither is the original intent of our Creator, but consequences of our disobedience.
The first animal was given to man as food when the covenant was reestablished after Noah disembarked from the ark. God was starting over with His stiff-necked, sinful people, and in the new creation after the flood, yet another consequence of humanity’s sin included the death of more creatures: “Every creature that is alive shall be yours to eat; I give them all to you as I did the green plants.” (Gen 9:3)
The Scriptures are full of references to grains, many, many more than I have noted here. Clearly being solely meat eaters was not in the original perfect plan (but neither was tilling the soil.) Grains have staked their place as a traditional food and meant for our consumption. The question remains: How to prepare them? On this, the Bible doesn’t exactly read like a recipe book.
My closing opinion:
With every other food, notably eggs and dairy, I often claim that what God created whole, we humans shouldn’t be taking apart. I can only believe that the same holds true for grains. Whole grains may need a little help to be super nutritious, but there’s got to be a way for them to nourish us. God wouldn’t sabotage us like that.
Read the whole article HERE.
What are Phytates and Phytic Acid?
Now, we get into the heady stuff. Strap on your thinking caps, kids!
Phytates and phytic acid are not the same thing. They are related and work together, but one cannot speak of them interchangeably.
Phytic acid is billed as both an antioxidant and an anti-nutrient, clouding the issue from the get-go. It’s technically called a hexaphosphoinositol and is a powerful chelator, which means it binds with other minerals and takes them out of your system. This could be positive, toxin-reducing, and cancer-fighting, or negative, prohibiting your system from absorbing minerals.
That is, if phytic acid can get free in the first place.
Phytates are the bond holding phytic acid. Within the bran layer of a grain/seed, we find phosphorus bound up and unavailable, along with calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc. The phytate connects these minerals to the phytic acid. In order to release the minerals into our bodies, we need to break the bond between phytate and phytic acid in one of three ways:
- in the gut with stomach acid
- via germination
- under the enzyme phytase
The problems with this information include:
- How can the bonds be broken in reality in a home kitchen?
- What happens to the now freed phytic acid? Is that bad for us too?
- Will the phytic acid just reattach to the minerals before we digest them anyway?
- If we rinse the soaked whole grains, does it wash away the phytic acid before it can “grab” the minerals again? Or do we rinse away the minerals too?
You can read the rest of the article on phytates and phytic acid related to soaking grains.
The chart above shows levels of phytic acid/phytate in various grains and legumes. As you can see, although you may have heard oats are extremely high in phytate content, they are very similar to wheat. The trick with oats is found in the next section…
What is Phytase?
Phytase is an enzyme. An enzyme is a protein in a living thing that causes action. Scientists call them catalysts; I’d just call them doers. They make life happen. Enzymes are not always in an active state, but can be dormant and need certain conditions to be activated.
Imagine a vehicle sitting in your driveway. Unless you have the key, it’s just a large object blocking your path. Once you have the key, however, it becomes a mode of transportation and quite useful. Phytase is the key to starting the engine within the grain. Making the phytates move out of the way is not possible without the “key” of phytase.
When activated, phytase attaches to the phytate to help release the phosphorus (phytic acid).
Phytase is in plants, including grains, as well as in the form of microbial phytase in yeast and sourdough leaven.
Various plants have differing amounts of the enzyme phytase. For example, wheat, rye, and barley have considerable amounts of phytase, whereas corn, oats, sorghum, and millet have little or no phytase activity. Baker’s yeast also contains phytase.
The chart above is from the Journal of Food Science, Vol. 67, No. 9, 2002. Wheat and rice are singled out as examples of low and high phytase. The “untreated” column shows phytase levels in natural foods.
Levels of phytase are much higher in freshly ground grain than flour that has been sitting around for more than a few days. The question now is how to activate phytase, realistically, scientifically proven, in a home kitchen?
For the rest on the issue, including phytase in the digestive system and what studies have and haven’t been done on phytase in humans, read What is the Role of Phytase in Soaking Grains?
As if the landscape of eating grains wasn’t already confusing enough…I’m so sorry, but I have to throw another evil nutrient into the mix: lectins.
What are Lectins?
In simple language, lectins are proteins that bind to sugars/starches found in all food substances. Stomach acid has little effect on lectins, so they’re virtually indigestible. The way they stick to other substances in the body plays a large role in inflammation, which means they’re pegged as possible causes or players in diseases like inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases.
The highest levels of lectins are found in grains, legumes, dairy, eggs, and the nightshade family (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, pepper, corn, and a few more), including oils from lectin-containing foods like soybeans. Doesn’t that list look a little like a list of common allergens? Wheat, dairy, peanuts, eggs, soy, corn… It’s likely that grain-fed dairy and pasteurized dairy allow lectins to be even more toxic.2
It’s likely that our current diet contains more lectins than in years past, because we have hybridized and genetically modified things like wheat to increase its protein content. Since lectin is a protein, our lectin load is increased.
How do Lectins Hurt People?
“The important point is that some of the lectins consumed in everyday foods act as chemical messengers that can in fact bind to the sugars of cells in the gut and the blood cells, initiating an inflammatory response.” 1 For example, gliadin is a term you may have heard of if you’ve look very deeply into the gluten issue. Gliadin is actually a lectin and component of wheat germ and gluten. It’s highly theorized that gliadin is the culprit in many issues blamed on gluten, particularly those autoimmune and inflammatory diseases.
Gliadin likely disrupts intestinal flora (good/bad bacteria balance), damages microvilli in the intestines, decreases immune response and causes gut permeability (“leaky gut syndrome” which allows all sorts of large, undigested food particles to enter the bloodstream, causing immune responses and harming the person’s body pretty intensely).
Different people respond differently to lectins, based on their genetics, bacterial or viral infections, use of NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatories) and other variables.2 Ironic, because NSAIDS are prescribed to treat inflammatory bowel disease.
What is food for some, is poison for others. For example, “The intestinal lining of people with Crohn’s disease and IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) appear to be more sensitive to the effects of food lectins because the lining is constantly being replaced by new tissue that is made up of immature cells that are more glycosylated and thus more susceptible to lectin attachment. It becomes a vicious cycle.”1
Lectins and Inflamed Joints
Inflammation of the gut is clinically related to joint inflammation. Lectins are pegged again, and one proof is that nightshade vegetables like tomatoes and potatoes, very high in lectins, often exacerbate symptoms of arthritis.
Lectins and Weight Gain
One possible reason why low carb diets contribute to weight loss is that lectins, found in most abundance in those starchy foods like grains, legumes, and potatoes, can mimic hormones, namely insulin. Their binding property can cause them to bind to the insulin receptor and mimic insulin, telling the body, “Make fat.” Bummer. It also stays attached to the insulin receptor, delivering its message constantly. Bigger bummer.
How Can we Avoid Lectins?
Cooking doesn’t really affect most lectins, but two traditional food preparation methods destroy or nearly completely diminish lectin content:
- Sprouting not only increases the overall nutrition of seeds, but it completely destroys the lectin. You can sprout both grains and legumes.
- Soaking beans in water and tossing the soak water also dramatically reduces lectin content.
Some seaweeds can bind to the lectins, preventing them from doing their dirty work in your system.1
Sullivan2 recommends an elimination diet, cutting all high-lectin foods for 7 days, then eating them from one family (for example dairy OR nightshades, but not both) at every meal for one day, then taking two more days off and examining your reactions/symptoms. You can practice the elimination for each group to see where you might be sensitive, then learn to avoid those foods.
Let’s take solace in that at least we know how easy it is to sprout legumes and how to make sprouted flour, and since we can’t really avoid 100% of lectins, we can’t worry our little heads about it. It’s just another piece of information to add to the puzzle.
I had a good old time conducting email correspondence between an Australian PhD biologist, Dr. O’Brien and Sally Fallon Morell, author of Nourishing Traditions. They heartily disagreed on just about everything, and I just wandered around with my big wooden spoon and questions, stirring the pot.
I can see why the discussions I posted here and here hurt people’s heads. I don’t even know how to summarize them. If you’re feeling very academic, please visit and help me sort it all out! The first post has over 80 comments and some pretty feisty opinions; I had forgotten about the mess I started to make with my big wooden spoon!
- Although O’Brien took a great deal of time humoring me and my questions, he seemed to miss the point about phytase being the essential activator in the phytate/phytic acid breakdown. That fact alone renders much of what he says about “soaking” meaningless.
- On the other hand, Sally Fallon Morell had trouble coming up with actual sources for her claims, and sent me isolated graphs in French, of all things. I was hoping that she would have more specific ammunition to justify the soaking practice.
- In the second post, I questioned whether diluting vinegar, a pH of 4.5, exactly what phytase needs to activate, with water would change the pH. I now have pH strips and have tested many soaking solutions! Results to come as this series continues…
- There are some interesting studies that actually involve phytase and phytates cited in the second post, and even one with human subjects, although hardly related to home cooking.
- The point that makes me upset is Fallon Morell’s claim that soaking reduces aflatoxins. The research she shared with me to back up her claims were about an unfamiliar enzyme and literally days of soaking, rather than the 12-24 hours in vinegar water that she recommends. It can hardly be extrapolated to prove her point. Furthermore, Dr. O’Brien points out that aflatoxin is an extremely deadly carcinogen, and the reduction of slightly less than half cited by Fallon is hardly something to cheer about. I have since read in The China Study about aflatoxin, confirming its toxicity. I’d rather hear no explanation than research that is unrelated and unhelpful.
Is White Flour Good For You?
I doubt it, but wasn’t I surprised when 3 of my 5 “experts” weighed in in favor of white bread or using white flour along with the wheat. Really?
You’ll have to read their thoughts here.
So Far, Sourdough is the Best
Sourdough preparation is, in my opinion, the healthiest way to prepare grains. It seems to be the most traditional via historical sources, and it also has the most positive research from what I could find. Read about sourdough health benefits if you want more details.
What About Sprouting?
Sprouting seems to have quite a bit of evidence for being healthier than unsprouted whole grains, but some sources say it doesn’t actually reduce the phytic acid content much. Nonetheless, many find that sprouting makes a huge difference in their families. I still advocate for its health benefits, as well, in part due to the research on lectins mentioned above. Read more here.
Do You Believe in Anecdotes?
I find people’s stories of how they find various kinds of grains to affect them positively fascinating. I can’t discount them as valid evidence, because if I found something that made me feel better, I’d do it and tell others all about it, too! There are lots of anecdotal stories about how people have felt when the soak their grains vs when they don’t.
What Does Katie Do?
Many ask me what our family actually does and whether I’ve come to a conclusion on the issue. Some think I should be clear about where I stand before sharing all this information.
1. I use soaked, soured, and some sprouted grains as much as possible. We eat some refined grains and occasionally whole wheat products, but they make me nervous. In spite of being a science geek, I have emotions too!
2. I have not come to a conclusion, scientifically, although I really appreciate hearing anecdotal evidence and other people’s stories.
3. I don’t want to tell people where I stand before presenting information, partly because I stand nowhere sound, and partly because part of my point in all of this is that people should be able to make their own informed decisions. I actually know far less than many other people but like to poke around and bother folks.
4. The end of this series will be a post called “To Soak or Not to Soak.” I can warn you right now, the title will likely be more the topic explored in the post, rather than a question to be answered in the post. Most likely, I’ll land somewhere vague and noncommittal.
Please remember that I’m only challenging the soaking practice to find the truth about how and why one might want to soak. I’m not trying to be a pain in the rear. I just seek balance, between extremes of food preparation, historical and scientific sources, and plain old common sense. Thanks for joining me. I am diving back in head first to share something new with you next week!
All About Soaking Grains
Here’s a wrap-up of my findings:
- My original explanation: Why Soak Whole Grains?
- How to Soak Oatmeal
- A challenge of confusion: Eat Fewer Grains (since we don’t know how to prepare them yet) The comments on this post are worth a look!
- The Basics: The Nutritional Value of Whole Grains – Benefits and Dangers
- Historical and Biblical references: Is Soaking Grains Traditional?
- What are Phytates and Phytic Acid?
- Health Benefits of Sourdough Preparation
- How to Make a Sourdough Starter
- Health Benefits of Sprouting
- How to Sprout Seeds or Legumes
- What is the Role of Phytase?
- Two New and Improved Ways to Soak Brown Rice: Germinated Brown Rice and Accelerated Fermentation (easier and most effective)
- 5 Soaking Grains Experts & Their Debate + Anecdotal Evidence
- How to Sprout Whole Grains and Make Sprouted Flour
- Everything I Learned About Gluten
- More information: Buy the Phytic Acid Paper at Rebuild Market
- Soaking Grain Exploration
- What is the pH of Your Favorite Soaking Medium?
- Soaking vs. Sprouting: Which is Best?
- The How-To: Directions for How to Soak or Sprout Anything
- That Whole Grains Question: Is It Time for “To Soak or Not to Soak?”
- Doing a Grain-free Elimination Diet? Resources and Recipes, All in One Place
Soaked Grain Recipes
- Our Family’s Go-to Pancakes
- Homemade Tortillas
- Soaked Breadmaker Bread
- Soaked biscuits
- Soaked cornbread or corn muffins
- Soaked oatmeal
- Soaked Pumpkin Muffins
- Soaked Wheat Thin Style Crackers
- Soaked Artisan Bread in Five’s Whole Wheat (an attempt)
- How to Make a Sourdough Starter (sourdough is healthier than soaked!)
- Whole Wheat Sourdough Crackers
- Sourdough Pancakes
- Sourdough Pizza
- Sourdough Muffins
- Honey Whole Wheat Sourdough Bread
- How to Soak and Dehydrate Oats
- How to Make Crispy Nuts
- Soaked Granola Bars
- Essential Eating’s Sprouted Bread and Rolls
- Nourishing Tradition’s Soaked Buttermilk Bread
- Soaked Grain Recipe Carnival (that became a free eBook – get it HERE!)
If you decide you don’t need to soak: How to Read a Bread Bag for Whole Grains
1. Lectins Their Damaging Role in Intestinal Health, Rheumatoid Arthritis and Weight Loss by Carolyn Pierini, CLS (ASCP), CNC, here.
2. The Lectin Report by Krispin Sullivan, CN