If you take a good look around at your local grocery (especially if it has a healthy bent), you'll likely notice a widening field of sprouted foods.
We're not talking about the little white and green shoots you sprinkle on your salad or Chinese food, but rather minimally sprouted nuts, seeds, beans and grains that can be munched, boiled, ground or baked into traditional dishes as easily as their nonsprouted siblings.
These more nutritious versions of beans and grains have recently found their way into dozens of commercial breads, flours, snack foods and pastas, with some of the most interesting and promising coming from sprouted brown rice.
Products include sprouted rice protein supplements, germinated and dried brown rice, and Annie Chun's brand precooked sprouted rice. There are even special rice cookers that will germinate the rice in the machine for you.
Many love the rice's softer texture and more complex flavors, but most seem to turn to it for its health benefits.
Japanese studies presented at a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization symposium in 2004 indicate that sprouting rice by soaking it in warm water for 8 to 24 hours can increase fiber by as much as four times, B vitamins and magnesium by as much as three times and gamma-aminobutyric acid (or GABA) by as much as 10 times.
What is gamma-aminobutyric acid? It's an amino acid and neurotransmitter known to have a calming effect on the nerves. Some, seeking anxiety relief, take GABA supplements even though research is inconclusive about the ability of ingested GABA to enter the brain.
Some research does suggest that ingested GABA can, through the pituitary gland, stimulate human growth hormone if taken right before a workout. This leads others to surmise that it must have at least some neurological impact.
Japanese rice cooker maker Zojirushi says that by using its GABA rice cooking function, consumers can increase the GABA in their rice by 50 percent. Planet Rice, a California-based producer of presprouted brown rice, says its rice delivers six times the GABA of regular brown rice.
Cynthia Harriman is the director of food and nutrition strategies at the Whole Grains Council and Oldways, an educational nonprofit promoting health through traditional diets. She says East Asians have long resisted public health efforts to increase brown rice consumption. Consumers saw it as hard to chew, unrefined and odd tasting. But sprouted brown rice, with its tender texture and slightly sweet nutty flavor, has taken off in a big way, especially in South Korea and Japan. One Seattle sushi bar (called Gaba Sushi) even uses it exclusively for sushi.
Another benefit of eating brown rice is increased mineral absorption. Sprouting whole grains breaks down their phytic acid, which hampers the absorption of minerals, like the magnesium, calcium and zinc in rice. Decreasing the phytic acid makes these important minerals more bioavailable to your body.
Stephan Guyenet is an obesity researcher at the University of Washington and a nutrition blogger who specializes in translating science into readable posts for the public. While searching for a way to make the minerals in brown rice more available, he came across a 2008 Chinese study that showed phytic acid reduction was greatly improved when the brown rice is soaked in a slightly acidic water that had been saved from the soaking water of the previously soaked batch.
It turns out the method came from a traditional Chinese grain fermentation practice that resembles soaking and fermentation methods of several cultures around the world.
"I think sprouting is part of our ongoing appreciation of the old ways," Harriman says. "People used to soak grains largely because fuel was so hard to come by, and so if you soak them first, they cook more quickly. But this may also increase the bioavailability of nutrients."
While these methods were probably helpful in freeing up more minerals for our hungry frugal ancestors, Guyenet doubts that these minerals will make or break the health of those already eating a well-rounded diet. Still, he says, some macrobiotic eaters, vegans and other grain-dependent groups could benefit from the practice.
For some, a major benefit of sprouted rice is its increased fiber, which may make you feel fuller, contribute to regularity and decrease the speed at which you metabolize it.
Guyenet explains that when "you sprout the seed and cause it to grow, the seed converts stored energy into structural materials that are predominantly cellulose, which is fiber."
While much of the research around sprouted rice has focused on its ability to improve the diets of those in the developing world, its most avid consumers right now are Japanese, Korean and Western health food seekers.
New York registered dietitian Tamara Freuman says she occasionally buys sprouted brown rice for herself, but she's concerned that the price (up to $8 a pound) could scare off some consumers who also "might wrongly assume regular brown rice isn't good enough and so why bother?"
Freuman thinks you may get the best nutritional bang for your buck by sprouting "garbanzo beans, lentils and pumpkin seeds, that are less digestible" than rice or corn, for instance. She also warns against putting a "health halo" around snack foods (like sprouted puffs or chips) and assuming you can treat them as health food.
Harriman says buying sprouted rice at Korean superstores (like H Mart, with sales online and in its nationwide outlets) can cut the price dramatically. TruRoots germinated rice can cost $24 for 3 pounds, for example, while Korean varieties of sprouted rice are offered at H Mart for as little as $11.50 for 3 pounds.
But whether you seek out sprouted brown rice for special occasions or everyday cooking, and whether you are interested in its extra fiber, extra nutrients or the potential effects of its GABA, you now have a variety of ways to get it.
Putting it to the test
We recently tried a few methods for making sprouted brown rice to see how they taste, how much they cost and, in the case of sprouting it ourselves, how much work they required.
Soaking in water
How: Different websites and books suggest different soaking times — from overnight at room temperature to overnight at 104 degrees followed by two to seven days of covered sprouting with regular rinsing. We settled on soaking the washed rice in warm water overnight in a very warm room and then letting it sit covered in a colander for 24 hours with rinses every 8 hours or so. We detected no sprouting, but the kernels did get puffy.
Advantages: It's cheap, and you enjoy the benefits of full sprouting. You can also save some acidic soaking water to add to your next batch for more effective soaking.
Drawbacks: This takes extra time and care, especially if you want to achieve a sprout. Batches can also turn sour and cheesy if you forget to rinse the rice in time.
Using a special rice cooker
How: Zojirushi and Cuckoo sell rice cookers with GABA functions (through Amazon, Sur La Table, Bed Bath & Beyond and other sites) and at Asian grocery and housewares stores for $260 to $800. Machines hold the rice and water at 104 degrees for 2 to 3 hours before starting cooking.
Advantages: Minimal hassle and perfect rice every time. Machines are also excellent for other grains.
Disadvantages: High prices and fewer health benefits than fully sprouted rice.
Buying presprouted/germinated rice from a store
How: For sale at Japanese and Korean chains including H Mart and in some other stores, including Whole Foods.
Advantages: Cooks quickly and offers the benefits of fully sprouted rice without a special rice cooker or long soaking and sprouting.
Disadvantages: Costs $4 to $8 a pound.
Buying precooked, prepackaged sprouted brown rice
How: At least two brands of precooked sprouted brown rice — Annie Chun's and Ottogi — are available online or at Asian stores for $3 a serving.
Advantages: Sprouted rice with almost no effort.
Disadvantages: Pricey, and it's unclear how or whether nutrients are lost when the rice is precooked and packaged for a long shelf life.
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