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Sprouted foods are springing up everywhere.Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

New products are literally sprouting up in the grocery aisles: sprouted buckwheat granola, sprouted brown rice, sprouted multigrain English muffins, and do-it-yourself sprouting seed packets.

Sprouted foods, which experienced a brief surge in popularity during the 1970s, have made a culinary comeback in North America, thanks to a growing interest in healthy grains and wholesome, minimally processed foods.

The new wave of sprouted foods go beyond your typical alfalfa and bean sprouts and includes sprouted grains such as rice and wheat. Enthusiastsclaim the process of soaking and sprouting boosts nutritive powers. Nutrition experts, however, aren't so sure.

"Over the last two years, demand for sprouted products has increased a great deal," says Patrick Conner, public-relations co-ordinator at The Big Carrot natural-food store in Toronto - and it's not just among raw-food and macrobiotic enthusiasts, either.

Amid concerns about the nutritional value and digestibility of conventionally processedwheat, rye and other grains, sprouted foods have caught the momentumof the gluten-free trend and are edging into the mainstream. Retailers such as Whole Foods are giving more shelf and freezer space to sprouted products. The New York Times recently featured recipes for sprouted brown rice, describing it as a "sweeter, more delicate" and overall "better" alternative to ordinary brown rice.

And earlier this year, the Center for Culinary Development, a food and product development firm based in San Francisco, put sprouted foods at "stage 2" in its Culinary Trend Mapping Report. (The designation is based on the premise that culinary trends pass through five distinct stages to becoming mainstream. At stage 2, they tend to be featured in magazines and at specialty stores.)

"People are looking back to more ancient and more traditional ways of growing food," says Kara Nielsen, the company's "trendologist". "And since digestion is such a big issue for people ... people are also just sort of realizing there are better ways of eating grain."

A wide range of health promises are associated with sprouted foods. The process of soaking and sprouting whole grains is said to increase their vitamin, mineral and fibre content, and lower their glycemic index - or the amount by which they raise sugar levels in the blood. The sprouting process is also said to boost "bioavailability" - or ability for the body to make use - of certain nutrients such as calcium.

But do sprouted foods live up to these promises? According to nutrition experts, the jury is still out.

Prof. Terry Graham, chair of the faculty of human health and nutritional sciences at the University of Guelph, says there's little research to determine whether sprouted foods are better for you. It's particularly tricky for scientists to compare products such as sprouted grain breads against non-sprouted grain breads, since every ingredient and every step of production, from the milling process to the way it's baked, can alter nutritional properties, he says.

Isolating the effect of the sprouting process and measuring how people absorb the nutrients would require an enormous amount of time and resources, he says.

Theoretically, sprouting should increase the amount of healthy antioxidants and alter the structure of the starch in a grain, since it undergoes changes to prepare for growth, Dr. Graham says.

"Biology is smart enough to build in all sorts of protections," including producing antioxidants and other compounds that allow a grain or seed to resist bacteria as it comes out of its dormant state, he says.

It's unclear, though, whether there's an optimal sprouting time - whether a grain of brown rice is any more nutritious if it's been left to sprout for three hours versus three weeks. Furthermore, it's unknown how much people need to ingest to get any benefit.

"You always see these things, like, 'Oh, this is really good for you,' " Dr. Graham says, "and then you find out you'd have to eat your body weight in it."

Rosie Dhaliwal, a registered dietitian at Simon Fraser University, says some brands of sprouted grain breads are higher in fibre, riboflavin, folate and thiamine than their conventional counterparts.

But the sprouting may not be the reason for their nutritional superiority, she says. This may be due simply to their not being heavily processed. Unlike in conventional white or whole wheat breads, sprouted grains are kept intact and aren't stripped of their fibre-rich outer layers when converted into flour, she says. To create sprouted grain flour, the grains are dried after they're sprouted and milled whole.

"It's not what's happening, it's what's not happening. It's not being processed, so we're getting all the benefits of the wheat kernel as it naturally is," Ms. Dhaliwal says, noting the same can be said for whole-grain whole wheat breads.

Dr. Graham says there's no harm in eating sprouted foods. "If there was a harmful thing, it would be convincing people this is really good for you and you're getting all sorts of health benefits [when]we can't truly say whether or not it's going to make you healthier."

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