In the conversation about whether or not grains and legumes are healthy for us, we often overlook the matters of quality and processing.
The difference between conventional and traditional gragumes crops is vast. Most modern day varieties have been specifically bred for certain characteristics, such as productivity, protein levels (think: gluten), pesticide resistance, and more. In the course of this well-intentioned but selective breeding, we’ve developed over-farmed hybrids lacking the nutritional complexities that ancient gragumes provided. Take wheat; although over 30,000 varieties have been identified, today we breed only a handful.
Let’s take a look conventional farming.
Before planting, seeds are often pre-coated with fungicides and herbicides to prevent rot and insect damage during sprouting. They are mono-cropped in overworked soil, fertile only with the addition of large amounts of chemical fertilizer. Keep in mind that while these fertilizers have been developed to produce a productive and attractive plant, they impart only a fraction of the nutritional compounds that would be provided by rich, organic soil. Plants are sprayed regularly throughout their development with of pesticides and herbicides which often contain known xenoestrogens. Xenoestrogens can enter the bloodstream and mimic hormones in the body, disrupting natural feedback loops. While it’s claimed that these break down well before gragumes end up on our plates, the research is inconclusive. Finally, a few days before harvesting, many farmers give their grains or legumes a last application of glyphosate to ensure consistent and protected ripening (for a good time, just Google glyphosate). After harvesting, some grains are irradiated before being packaged.
How to navigate the grain and legume aisle; it's possible (for most)!
The best way to fight back against this depleting cycle is to choose only organic grains. Bonus points if you can find local, and extra bonus points if you shop for ancient varieties. Some alternatives to wheat that are great for baking include kamut, khorasan, spelt, einkorn, farro, and red fife. Jovial and One Degree are two companies on the forefront of making these grains available to consumers. Ancient grains to use for side dishes, salads, and porridge include amaranth, millet, teff, and quinoa.
Grains and legumes have a dream. They want to be gobbled by a passing animal and come out the other end in a convenient mound of fertilizer. It’s the simple strategy that spread plants around the world to begin with. But in order to resist digestion during their transit, they must be fortified with various compounds that fight back against breakdown. From their husks on the outside, to anti-nutrients in the tiny bran, grains and legumes are ready to fight.
Lectins, enzyme inhibitors, and phytic acid are some of the primary tools in the grain/legume toolkit and are at the cornerstone of the debate over whether they're fit for eating or not. Lectins, a seed’s natural insecticide, can damage the intestinal lining, enter the blood stream and cause immune reactions or allergies. Enzyme inhibitors prevent our digestive juices from breaking down these foods for absorption. Phytic acid, a plant’s phosphorous store, binds to minerals and leaches them from our body.
Enter: processing. We usually think of “processed” as a dirty food word, meaning stripped of nutrients, packaged, and preserved for eternity. In actuality, simple processing can improve the digestibility and health benefit of many foods. This is especially true when it comes to grains and legumes.
Soaking, sprouting, fermenting
These old-world methods of preparing grains contain important lessons for the modern cook. Each of them works in a different way to breakdown and deactivate the anti-nutrients in grains, and used to be an integral step in preparation. Giving grains and legumes time to soak in acidified water or shoot out a sprout lets them believe they’ve made it to their growing environment and they can RELAX already with those anti-nutrients. A good portion of those compounds are then leached into the water and can be rinsed away before cooking.
Although each of these methods requires a little pre-planning, there is little actual time added to the preparation. It soon becomes habit to keep a bowl of gragumes soaking or fermenting for whatever dishes the week might bring. Please note that while basic strategies are outlined below, there are few “rules” to follow. Quantities and timeframes are as flexible as you need them to be.
SOAKING: Cover 1-2 cups grains/legumes by a few inches of water. Add a dash of something acidic, like ¼ c. apple cider vinegar, a spoonful of yogurt, or the juice of a fresh lemon. Leave to soak for 12-24 hours. Drain, rinse, cook as usual.
SPROUTING: Sprouting times and directions vary slightly by seed variety, but the gist is as follows. Soak grains/legumes for 12 hours. Transfer to jar and cover top with cheesecloth or a clean dish towel secured with a rubber band. Rinse twice a day, leaving jar upside down for drainage in between. Prepare grains/legumes for eating when tiny sprouts emerge or later, when an inch of two of plant is growing. Sprouted grains/legumes can be dehydrated, boiled, ground into a base for breads and other baked goods, or pureed into smoothies.
FERMENTING: it’s like soaking on steroids. Use something cultured for your acid like whey, yogurt, kefir, or kraut juice. Allow gragumes to sit at room temperature for 2-4 days or until bubbly and slightly sour smelling. Drain, rinse, cook as usual. Alternatively, explore the artisan world of homemade sourdough.