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'. BUT...my 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, Healthbanquet.com
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.
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