Understanding Fermented Grains

June 2024 - Nutrition

Whole grains are a part of a balanced diet for many Canadians, but why do some people have trouble digesting them? After all, grains have been consumed for thousands of years, but we are seeing more intolerance to them today than ever before. Has the quality changed or should we get back to practicing a way of making them more digestible, as our ancestors did?

Fermenting grains is precisely how our ancestors preserved food, and through a time-consuming, by-hand method, gave grains a longer shelf life, and made them more tasty, nutritious and bioavailable. The process involved hulling, soaking in salt and an acidic medium such as apple cider vinegar or lemon, grinding and finally cooking the grains which decreased anti-nutrient compounds that typically cause digestive upset.

Grains that have not undergone fermentation, soaking or sprouting contain anti-nutrients for a good reason, which is that they are not digested by animals or humans. These indigestible compounds are the plant’s protective mechanism, ensuring that the hard shell surrounding the seed remains unharmed when consumed so that it can continue to flourish and reproduce itself. Basically, the seed protects itself so it can eventually become a plant. As animals feed on crops of wheat, corn, maize and barley, the seed of the plant passes through the animal’s digestive system and emerges as a pre-fertilized seed that is deposited back into the soil. Humans, on the other hand, don’t have it so easy when it comes to consuming a diet rich in grains, and some major side effects can result.

Soaking and Fermenting Grains
Not everyone needs to soak, sprout or ferment grains before eating them, but the benefits are abundant should you decide to. Those who suffer with inflammation, blood sugar imbalances, gluten intolerance or allergy, auto-immune diseases and gut dysbiosis or IBS might want to either avoid consuming most grains, especially gluten-containing grains, or try soaking and sprouting them for 24–48 hours before eating or cooking. This will help to neutralize the phytic acid, lectins and anti-nutrient compounds that can contribute to, or worsen, symptoms.

As far as gluten is concerned, fermenting the specific grains that contain it does reduce it to a degree, but moreso if the grains are sprouted first. Take sourdough, for example. Many people who cannot digest whole wheat bread seem to digest sourdough well, even though it does contain some gluten. The reason? Sourdough uses lactic acid bacteria and a different kind of yeast to ferment the grain, which results in a more digestible product. Those with celiac disease should always avoid grains that contain gluten, including sourdough.

For those who seem to digest grain products well, switching to a fermented or sprouted grain can certainly increase the nutrient profile, digestibility and absorption of the nutrients in your food. Fermented foods also contain live probiotics, so they benefit your gut flora, or microbiome. During the fermentation process, the sugars and carbohydrates that the food naturally contains interact with bacteria, yeast and microbes. This changes the chemical structure of the food and results in the formation of healthy probiotics.

Types of Fermentation
Today, many fermented foods are readily available in stores, but there are three methods that even a beginner can try at home. There is a science behind each chemical process, no matter which method you choose.

  1. Lactic Acid Fermentation is used to make sauerkraut, pickles, yogurt, sourdough bread and kimchi. Yeast strains and bacteria break down sugar and starch into lactic acid.
  2. Alcohol Fermentation, whereby yeast breaks down sugar and starch into alcohol, is used to make wine and beer.
  3. Acetic Acid Fermentation is used to make kombucha, apple cider vinegar and wine vinegar. It is a result of starches and sugars from grain and fruit fermenting.

Jen Casey is a Certified Nutritional Practitioner. She focuses on holistic, diet-free approaches to weight loss and balancing hormones through nutrition and lifestyle.
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