Monday, August 1, 2011

Do I Really Need To Soak My Grains?

Several weeks ago now I had the pleasure of staying up until an obscene hour with an old dear friend and talking like a couple of girls who didn't have to wake up at 6 in the morning with four kids between us. I love food, MS loves food. We both agree that the best food is real and non-processed.

Admittedly, while I just preach about real food of the mostly non-chicken nugget variety, MS really lives it, organ meat and all. Living abroad in a country where most milk, meat and vegetables are grass fed and organic by default because the local farmers are too poor to buy feed and fertilizer, MS takes non-processed to the max. It is quite inspiring. MS is quite versed in soaking her grains and flours but as we talked, I lamented my inability to soak my own grains. I understand why one soaks grains, to make them easier to digest. But every morning I wake up ready to make some baked oatmeal (or mmmmmm oatmeal blueberry muffins) only to realize that I have forgotten to soak the oatmeal the night before. I know I could just go ahead and proceed, but I really want to try the soaking. It seems exotic to make soaked flour pancakes. And many texts have lead me to believe that there are no redeemable qualities to unsoaked grains. They are all gut damaging, blood sugar spiking beasties.

But, I have some issues with the idea that grains are useless unless soaked overnight. It just doesn't all add up to me. If soaking grains is so traditional, how come it doesn't survive in a single recipe that I have come across? Everyone still soaks dried beans because just cooking them from their hard state takes forEVER. And if you want to try it for shits and giggles, improperly soaked beans will make you quite the gas machine. Sadly, I have that issue everytime I eat beans in a restaurant. Just about every restaruant out there cooks their beans too hot and too quickly. And while they feel edible on your tounge, they will leave your bowels (and possibly your personal pride) ravaged. But while soaking beans is pretty common from Maine to Mexico, I don't know of any great grandmother that left flour mixed in yogurt sitting on her countertop overnight. Please, my great grandmother had probably never heard of yogurt. And yes I have heard stories about Quaker Oats long ago coming with the instruction to soak the oats overnight. But never have I heard of a text confirming such a story with some first hand account. This soaking thing is really a new concept to me.

I am NOT being difficult, I promise. I just wonder why I haven't heard of the traditional practice of soaking flour until now. The whole premise is that soaking whole or ground grains (better known as flour) in warm salt water or an acidic liquid like keifer, yogurt or even just water with whey sort of pre-digests those nasty lectins or antinutrients and phytic acid found in grains. These antinutrients are substances within the grains that inhibit you from digesting all the nutrition that the grain has to offer. This phenomenon is a defence mechanism of the plant. The seed does NOT want you to chew it up and digest it. It gains nothing from that. So the plant gives us a reason to not want to eat it at all so that it's seed can stay intact. When you eat the grain, it upsets your tummy a little and you get little if any nutrition. This is quite true of raw grains. You would never eat a grain raw, gross. It is worth noting that these antinutrients are found in the bran, which has been removed from white flour. White flour has easily been produced since the mid 1700's, so it is possible that any recipes that included soaking have long been lost (see my post A Brief History of Refined Flour). But the truth is...I don't know. The typical Western diet is not high in these lectins and phytic acid because the typical Western Diet is not high in WHOLE grains. White flour doesn't need to be soaked because it does not contain the bran, which contains the problem antinutrients. So no research has really been done here.

But while you might never eat a raw grain, what does regular ole' cooking do for grains? I certainly don't get an upset tummy from eating a slice of bread made from flour that has not been soaked. The collective opinion is that standard cooking renders some of the nutrition in whole grains available, but not all. Soaking your flour in some acidic medium is said to render more if not all of the nutrition available because the antinutrients are 'pre-digested'. biggest issue is, no one seems to know how much nutrition we are really getting with either preparation method. Are you digesting only 30% of the available nutrients of the unsoaked grains and over 90% of the soaked variety? Or are you getting 80% of the available nutrients of the unsoaked grains and 95% of the soaked ones? Does anyone actually know? (By the way, that is not a rhetorical question, if you do think you know, will you please comment?? I am truly interested.)

All I am saying is that I have had a hard time remembering to soak my grains and an equally hard time quantifying how much this soaking will benefit me. And if I didn't obsess about these pithy details, why on earth would you read this blog?

Then recently, to add to my confusion I recently read a blog post from another blogger (who I cannot find now) that explained that the calcium found in fermented dairy products inhibits your ability to digest the nutrients found in flour. This blogger suggested that one should soak their flour in only warm water with a little salt. Then to add even more feul to my fire, Dr. Mercola recently published an article that stated that sprouted grains had some of the highest lectin content out there. He was challenging the notion that sprouting or soaking grains is really worth it. He states, "The sprouts of grains such as wheat, maize, and rye are increasingly being consumed as health foods, and are also used for the production of dietary supplements. However, sprouted wheat actually contains the highest amounts of wheat lectin (WGA)—which is responsible for many of wheat's ill health effects! And that's not all. These sprouts (wheat, maize and rye) also contain benzoxazinoids (BAs). Benzoxazinoids are part of the plants' defense system against pests, and are actually toxic components..." Dr. Mercola does admit that there isn't enough evidence to state that sprouted grains are actually dangerous. And I will continue to buy sprouted grain bread.

Add to these articles, author Rebecca Wood recently published an article in her interesting monthly newsletter that came largely to the conclusion that I have. In her great article Best to Soak Grains? Wood details why one would soak their grains but also the textural changes that grains will undergo as they are soaked. Oatmeal left to soak overnight become more gummy and soft. Some people may love such a texture, others not. Wood states that there are many great reasons to soak one's grains, all of which I have mentioned here. But she also says, "Possibly the advice of some contemporary food writers to soak all grains, seeds and nuts—and even their flours—is a tich overboard. There’s no precedent for soaking almond flour. Taking one bit of information (soaking is best) and carrying it to a time intensive and new-fangled extreme has a fundamentalist ring to me."

It has occured to me that to obsess over the proper way to soak grains may be missing the point. Many of us have been guided to traditional foods because they offer a way to eat intuitively. For me, shunning processed foods has helped me to eat more nutritious foods, but also to stop obsessing over numbers and nutrition panels, Vitamin D content and antioxident availability. I know that when I eat non-processed whole foods I can trust that the natural combinations of vitamins will be right in order to help my digest my food. When I choose whole milk that has been only minorly pasteurized I know that there will be enough fat to help me absorb the Vitamin D. Whole foods have evolved over time to have the most natural chemical structures with nutrients that work together. When we isolate individual vitamins and take them in excess, such as in supplements, we might find that they may not work as well, or that our bodies don't absorb them at all. Worrying about soaking, or becoming preoccupied with the VERY best way to soak one's grains to make them as close to 100% digestable as possible is actually just as obsessive as worrying about saturated fat and counting calories. In eating whole foods I should be able to simply trust that the food is right. Or that it is just as it should be.

Soaking does render the grain more easy to digest. But while soaking grains may be good, unsoaked grains aren't a waste of your time. If you do not suffer from some compromised digestive disorder and you are not a candidate for the GAPS diet, your gut can digest cooked, but unsoaked grains and flour, it just doesn't get as much nutrition from them. And I don't buy into the idea that the vast majority of the population has a digestive sensitivity to grains. Numerous websites all agree that only about 15% of the population is sensitive to the most allergenic grain, wheat. And every now and then I come across a blogger that tells their mass following that wheat is bad for everyone. That is so not true. If you have some health problems wheat intolerance and digestive health is worth considering. But if you are healthy like me, wheat is probably not causing you any trouble at all.

That being said, grains, even soaked grains should not be the foundation of our diet. Regardless of whether it is wheat, rice or corn, two servings per meal with some extra in between isn't a good idea for just about everyone. I feel best when I have 1-3 servings of grains per day. They give me some great energy, so no grains often leaves me feeling tired and unenergetic. But too much makes me feel run down and strung out. Soaking may be good for the digestability, but it doesn't transform grains into something that you should be eating all day every day. Grains simply have their place in our diet behind protein foods and fresh vegetables. So I will try my damnest to soak my flour and oatmeal. But when I forget to soak my flour the night before, I will probably still wake up the next morning and make my muffins.

Also read : Soaking Grains,

Gluten Sensitivity, Wikipedia

UPDATE, August 4th, 2011: I just read a very interesting post at Ruth's Real Food. She mentions the rise of Celiac Disease in the last 50 years, and she quotes an actual study, something I appreciate. Ruth mentions that factory produced bread is given less than 5 hours to rise, when traditional sourdough is given 12-24 hours or more. I get that. Rising times are techinally soaking times. Perhaps that is the missing link in my thinking? Even basic bread recipes from the last 75-100 years that include little packets of yeast include 1 or 2 lengthy rise time that can equal 8-12 hours. While my great-grandmother wouldn't have left pancake batter sitting on the counter top, she would have allowed bread to rise twice before baking it. I don't believe that yeast is the devil, but I do think factory produced bread isn't worth the money spent on it. Maybe it is the rising time that is the key?

More food for thought....

UPDATE AUGUST 11th, 2011: My wonderful readers and commenters gave me so much to think about that I have written a follow up post. I bring it all together in Final Conclusions on Soaking Grains.

This post is shared with Traditional Tuesdays and Simple Lives Thursdays and Food Renegade's Fight Back Fridays


  1. I LOVE your honesty on this topic! I've had the hardest time wrapping my head around soaking grains regularly both from a "oops I forgot" standpoint and from a "does it really matter" standpoint. Actually I did some reading a while back that suggested those anti-nutrients can act as a chelating agent for heavy metals and toxins ....which is a pretty good side effect if you ask me. We certainly have no shortage of either of those in our lives.

  2. Great post - though I'm not sure I know the outcome...i still learned something in the reading to get there. you have a nice writing style!

  3. Your timing on this post couldn't have been more perfect. I am quite new to the "whole" foods concept of eating and it is quite overwhelming. From soaking grains, beans, etc I have not found a any one reliable source for soaking or not soaking, or sprouting or not. I agree with you that we can take things to the nth degree on any topic. I have not had any problems digesting unsoaked grains, but thought it should be done because everyone in the whole food community said so. I am so glad there are other people who are whole foodies but not crazy obsessed that making healthy food becomes a god. Thank you for being balanced about it all.

  4. Hi. A few thoughts to add.
    I don't think my grandmother (in Europe) or yours soaked grains, but I have definitely read that this is what certain cultures did with their grains.
    I don't know if sourdough is technically soaking, but it is an alternate method that definitely does the trick.
    BTW, there's a website somewhere that has uploaded old cookbooks, even from a few hundred years ago - somewhere on the web. Great way to find out about what people used to do.

  5. Here's an old cookbook site.

  6. Just read this blog post and thought of your post. This answers a lot of questions.

  7. while reading your post I thought about reports from several years ago on how unhealthy the populace has become from eating 'white' bread/flours ..the answer and improved health we were told, came from eating whole grains. My question; how could so many have improved health and less disease from whole grain consumption if there are so many 'bad' things in it for us? Maybe its a matter of degree, but I appreciate your open discussion of the subject.

  8. Excellent post! I have one question to add to the topic and one revelation. First, if I don't soak my whole wheat before I make banana bread, but it sits around for a whole day before I eat it, will that "soaking" do the same thing as pre-soaking? Second. My daughter-in-law who has Celiac disease can eat the things that I soak with no trouble, but not the un-soaked items.

  9. There actually are "overnight" pancake batters and waffle batters. I forget what the benefits of doing an overnight batter are supposed to be (but it wasn't for maximizing nutrition and neutralizing phytates.

    I think that when Sally Fallon uses the word "traditional," she is talking not so much about our grandmother's recipes (which is how I would have once used the word), but about pre-industrial traditional cultures. Pre-white flour. Pre-refrigeration. Even pre-mason jar!

    I have the same problems you do with remembering to soak. Also with remember to defrost meats in time!

  10. I, too, have been confused by some of the information out there regarding "traditional" foods. Traditional to whom? South Pacific-islanders? African? Aisan? How far back are we talking here, centuries? I'm as white-bread/bred as they come, I descend from Irish and English heritages and I'd be willing to bet money that my great great grandmother didn't obsess over soaking grains and probably never even heard of coconuts, let alone coconut oil.

    The health problems that are inherent in our SAD culture today didn't really start happening until roughly 50-60 years ago, and even then have only REALLY escalated at the current rapid rate within the last 20 years or we have to ask ourselves what changed in that time period?

    My dad, born in 1931, was raised on a farm on a diet heavy in fresh garden vegetables, but also heavy on white bread and potatoes. His whole family was healthy and thin on this lifestyle, until of course they reached middle age in the 1960's and the weight and health problems starting piling on.

    Look back even as recent as the 1970's and early 80's, people were eating white bread and things we call unhealthy today then but there still wasn't the obesity and other problems rising today. I blame oversized portions, reliance on HFCS and other chemical additives like MSG, not to forget soy in EVERYTHING, CAFO meat and eggs, for a lot of our diet problems today. 30 years ago these things were not in our food, not even in the unhealthy white bread stuff.

    I agree with a lot of what Fallon and company tout - unprocessed food, grass fed meat and raw milk, organic non-GMO frut and veg - but I think the current obsession with some of the traditional foods is just another food health fad and lots of people like joining in on the band wagon. There, I said it! :)

  11. I have to admit, I came here ready to defend soaking vehemently.

    But after reading your post, I have come to appreciate your line of questioning. Certainly nothing should be taken as gospel just because ______ says so. So you are absolutely right to question. And I have no answers, although I would suggest you check out this series of posts, as she did a lot of research on soaking:

    And I have to say that, had circumstance been different I would have likely had the same attitude towards it that you do. However, the reason that I stumbled onto the trad foods thing is because I had two kids with bad food allergies- allergies that made them sick for over nine months before we figured it out. And I wasn't satisfied with simply removing the offending foods- I wanted to know what caused the allergy and how I could fix it. After extensive research I came across Nourishing Traditions and, after following most of the principles in NT and temporarily eliminating the offending foods for six months, my kids were healed. Now they can eat anything.

    But that was not my only proof that soaking grains made a difference. Just before this happened I had started baking bread ala Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day... which includes super long cold fermentation time. As soon as I started eating this bread instead of the store bought whole wheat bread I felt better... before I had IBS and was plagued with headaches and fatigue, ever since high school. But since switching I feel like a whole new person- my digestion has improved, I have tons of energy, I don't feel hopeless/depressed most of the time, my frustration level is much lower. I attribute that all to the diet.

    However, I do agree with this:
    "It has occured to me that to obsess over the proper way to soak grains may be missing the point."

    That whole paragraph rang true to me. I soak my grains. But I don't obsess about it. I started doing it out of what I felt was necessity (to heal my kids) and it has since become a part of our routine. But I don't obsess about how much soaking with what to do the best. I read a post once about a mom who sprouted, soaked, ground, and THEN sifted out the bran because she read that bran... I don't remember what. Not only do I think that takes it too far mentally, I think that is just too much for any person to do for a sustained amount of time. Soaking takes two seconds- all that stuff would take days.

    So because of my experience I would encourage you to just try it for a few weeks, esp if you suffer from headaches, fatigue, or mood problems. No one can know what is right for you except for you, and you don't know for sure until you try it. But I applaud you for questioning.

  12. I have been going back and forth about soaking. I have yet to soak any grains, though. I read the blog post about calcium blocking the breakdown of phytic acid when soaking and thought it was interesting. If freshly ground whole grain flour starts losing nutrients as it sits at room temperature then wouldn't that mean that soaking it or letting it sour when making a sourdough bread is it losing nutrients as it sits? I mean, let's be really picky. I have no doubt that that soaking and souring makes grains easier to digest, but allowing you to get more nutrients? Maybe. Maybe even minimally. If anyone in my house had issues with digesting grains then I would probably work a little harder at it. As it is, we already switched to eating only spelt instead of wheat- because it is easier to digest. If I am going to bake with regular wheat I will soak/sprout/sour the grain because I do notice a difference in how I feel.
    I cannot spend my whole life obsessing about proper preparation of grains. I try to eat only whole grains. We have been cutting out all processed foods. I am trying to increase our intake of fruits and vegetables. I have four kids to raise. I need a life outside the kitchen!

  13. I haven't had time to read all the replies, so I hope I'm not repeating this. I have wondered about all this also. I cant' believe wheat is "bad" for us, as it is mentioned so much in the Bible. But anyways, here's some food for thought on it that I have read.

    Phytic Acid – Friend or Foe?

    Phytic acid’s “chelating” ability is considered by some to be a detriment to one’s health. On the other hand, many researches embrace this ability to bind with minerals as its most powerful asset. In her book, Diet for the Atomic Age, Sara Shannon, lists 11 nutrients in particular that protect against heavy metal toxicity and radiation damage. Phytates bind with radioactive and toxic substances and carry them out of the body. Aware of phytic acid’s mineral binding properties, Shannon states that an adequate diet will more than compensate. One must also remember that whole grains themselves are an abundant source of iron, calcium, and zinc. After extensive research, Shannon found that the more toxic our environment becomes, grains are our best source of protection, particularly due to the phytate content. She believes that “for optimal health, at least half of every meal should be grains”. Why would one want to denature something that is so beneficial? In fact, a supplement company is actually isolating this “powerful antioxidant” because of its anti-tumor, anti-carcinogenic, and blood sugar regulating properties!

    Studies show that phytic acid, particularly from wheat bran, actually stimulates the productions of phytase in the small intestine. The fact that phytase can be produced in the small intestine eliminates the necessity of fermenting all grains before consuming them, as in the case of unleavened breads, quick breads (that do not use yeast as a leavening), and parched or boiled grains. Phytase activity in the small intestine actually increased, not decreased, the absorption of minerals, especially, calcium. (Journal of Nutrition 2000:130: 2020-2025). Over the years we have seen numerous people healed of life long anemia issues after they began grinding their own grains to make their bread. How could this be if phytic acid in the bran kept iron from being absorbed?

    Other studies have also shown that this increase of phytase activity, stimulated by phytic acid, offered significant reduction in the formation of cancer cells in the colon. This anti-carcinogenic protection was also attributed to phytic acid’s mineral chelating properties. If phytic acid strengthen and protects the colon, how could it cause colitis and irritable bowel syndrome? Again we have heard numerous testimonies of healing of both colitis and IBS from eating “real bread”.

    Phytic acid can be digested by humans and actually releases inositol during the process. Inositol is a key B vitamin necessary for the metabolism of fat and cholesterol. Whole grains are a valuable source of inositol, as well as choline and lecithin, which are also important in the break down of cholesterol. This may explain why so many people have reported a significant reduction in cholesterol levels once they began making their own bread from freshly milled grains. Inositol is also an essential nutrient in reducing depression. Again I ask - why would we want to denature this valuable nutrient?

    One should really wonder why whole grains and phytic acid were “picked on” at all. Why not oxalic acid? It is a mineral chelator found in spinach, chard, cranberries, almonds, rhubarb and other vegetables. Should we quit eating these healthy foods as well? Sally Fallon encourages the use of flaxseed for its rich source of fatty acids, stating that it is low in phytic acid. Yet sources that herald phytic acid as a nutrient, give wheat bran and flaxseed as the richest sources. Does soaking the grain over night actually denature the phytic acid? Not from what I have read. Only about 10% of the phytic acid is broken down in an overnight soak and that is not enough to make a significant difference.

  14. You make some great points. Personally researching this the old recipes I came across.... were oat recipes in which a porridge was made and kept and eaten over a few days or made into patties and fried. Nothing went to waste. It seems that a lot of European cultures would do this. So at the start you would have fresh oatmeal but end on a day with fried oatcakes. Sour dough culture was kept, fed and even passed onto the next generation. I think there is a happy medium to all this. After a 21 day cleanse of no grain except a small amount of brown rice.... I felt great. In looking into grains I found that the wheat we eat today is not what was grown in Europe years ago. So our wheat may also be more problematic because of the mono-culture and that in itself causes some sensitivities. So there is my 2 cents. Great site. Keep asking honest question we all need to ask.

  15. I am for soaking beans, and if you are diagnosed by a doctor with Celiac's, then by all means sprout. Only about 15% of the population is truly sensitive to wheat, but there are probably twice that who are sure they are. If they want to sprout and help increase the demand for gluten-free so those who truly need it also find it more readily available, great. I didn't buy into the food fad that eggs were the devil, nor the olive oil fad, and I'm skeptical about soaking and sprouting everything. Part of increasing health issues is obesity skyrocketing and the medical community's increased knowledge. Today there are so many diagnoses that didn't exist 50 years ago. One doctor says to sprout, and another comes along and explains why not to sprout, and both offer chemistry to back up their position. This just reeks of food fad.

  16. Wow, how thoughtful the posts are. I am learning from the posting. Actually these are the contentment of health aware people. for more please...
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