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food for thought

In addition to bread, you will also find sprouted grains in tortillas, hamburger and hot dog buns, crackers, frozen waffles and dried pasta.Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Q: Is it true that sprouted whole grain bread is healthier than regular whole grain bread? How are they different?

Even if you don’t know what sprouted grains are, you’ve probably seen a loaf of sprouted-grain bread in the grocery store. Stonemill Bakehouse, Food for Life Baking Co., Silver Hills Bakery and Dave’s Killer Bread offer loaves made with a variety of sprouted whole grains including wheat, rye, spelt, barley, millet, rice and oats.

You’ll also find sprouted grains in tortillas, hamburger and hot dog buns, crackers, frozen waffles and dried pasta. And sprouted whole-grain flours are available online and in specialty stores for home-baking.

Sprouted grains are often touted as being healthier than their unsprouted counterparts because they have higher vitamin and mineral levels.

The nutrient differences, though, may not be as great as you might think. What’s more, not all sprouted-grain breads (or other sprouted-grain products) are created equal.

Whole grains, sprouted grains defined

Grains start out as whole-grain kernels made up of three layers: the outer bran layer where nearly all the fibre is, the inner germ layer, which is rich in nutrients and healthy fats, and the starchy endosperm. Eating 100-per-cent whole-grain foods means that you’re getting all of the nutrition that whole grains have to offer.

When whole grains are processed into refined flour, the bran and germ layers are removed. Refined grains have 25 per cent less protein than whole grains and are significantly reduced in many other nutrients.

Sprouted grains are whole-grain kernels that have been soaked and germinated under controlled temperature and moisture conditions, just long enough for a tiny sprout to form. The germination process is ended by drying the grains for later use or grinding them into a mash to soon be made into breads and buns, tortillas and pasta.

Nutritional benefits of sprouted grains

During germination, the content of fibre, B vitamins, vitamin C, essential amino acids and many minerals increases in the grain, making these nutrients accessible to the growing sprout. Germination also breaks down natural compounds called phytates, which normally reduce the body’s ability to absorb minerals.

A 2019 review of studies on sprouted grains (but not sprouted-grain bread), published in the journal Nutrients, concluded that sprouting grains increases the availability of almost all nutrients and boosts the levels of certain antioxidants.

But do the extra nutrients in sprouted grains (or sprouted grain breads) translate into higher nutritional value? Maybe, maybe not.

No studies have evaluated whether the increased availability of nutrients in sprouted grains results in increased vitamin and mineral absorption in people. And some experts contend that the nutrient differences between sprouted and unsprouted whole-grain breads are minimal.

The nutrient increases in whole grains that occur during germination are often credited with providing health benefits. But that’s a huge leap to make considering the lack of human studies.

Sprouted grains may be easier to digest for people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity since germination breaks down some starch and gluten in the grain kernel. People with celiac disease, however, must avoid gluten-containing sprouted grains such as wheat, rye and barley.

Bottom line

Sprouted or not, all whole grains deliver more fibre, protein, nutrients and antioxidants than refined grains. A steady intake of whole grains has been tied to a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, colorectal cancer and dying from cardiovascular disease.

If you want to try sprouted-grain bread (I do like its earthy, nutty taste and hearty texture), read the ingredient list to make sure that all grains listed are whole grain. Some products are made with a combination of sprouted grains and refined flour.

Look for the word “whole” before the grain. Wheat flour, unbleached wheat flour, enriched wheat flour, rye flour and spelt flour, for example, indicate refined grains.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is Director of Food and Nutrition at Medcan.

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