Yes, soaking matters. Whole grains and legumes are central figures in a plant-based diet, but many people may have trouble digesting these foods (think: stomach bloat, gassiness, general indigestion). Soaking and sprouting your beans and grains can seem like an extra unnecessary step, but it’s a major factor in making them easier to break down. It’s also the difference between minimal and maximal nutrient absorption. Here’s why.

Living Food

Taking a page from Mother Earth, the act of soaking and sprouting your food mimics the natural process of seed germination.

Plants can’t move, so they’ve learned to adapt. Grains, beans, and nuts are all forms of seeds—meant to pass through the body of humans and animals undigested so that they can be transported elsewhere to promote their own propagation. To ensure that they’ll sail through unharmed, seeds have built-in antinutrients that make them more difficult to digest. They also have natural enzyme inhibitors that stop germination so they’ll be preserved until the right time for sprouting—i.e. when the weather’s warm.

But here’s the kicker: these enzyme inhibitors can also block your own enzyme activity when you eat unsoaked or unsprouted beans and grains.

By soaking or sprouting, you’ll be reducing the enzyme inhibitors and antinutrients to naturally make the seed itself more digestible, and in turn, creating a living food that’s incredibly nutrient-rich.

Phytic Acid: Friend and Foe

The primary anti-nutrient present in all legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds is known as phytic acid. This compound has been shown to inhibit the absorption of iron, zinc, calcium, and certain B vitamins (key nutrients often found lacking in a predominantly plant-based diet).

But some actually consider this antinutrient a powerful antioxidant. We now know that phytic acid may be helpful in binding iron if it’s in excess (iron is an oxidant, after all—the opposite of an antioxidant), and chelating or binding other heavy metals such as lead and arsenic.

And here’s some more conflicting info: when phytic acid is broken down, it’s converted into inositols—special micronutrients that help regulate blood sugar and hormonal health by improving insulin sensitivity. Pretty powerful stuff.

The enzyme responsible for breaking down phytic acid, phytase, is one that humans don’t naturally possess. Instead, traditional cooking techniques have honed the process of soaking and sprouting beans and grains to increase phytase activity, as each of these foods contains both phytic acid and the enzyme phytase.

So should phytic acid be reduced through soaking and sprouting? The bottom line is that if grains and legumes make up a large part of your daily diet, it’s wise to use these methods to block the mineral-binding action of phytic acid so that you don’t end up with mineral deficiencies.

Getty Images/iStockphoto
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Benefits of Soaking and Sprouting

Scientists have found that sprouting and soaking beans grains can increase iron and zinc absorption, as well as vitamins A and C and B vitamins, while also boosting protein content, digestibility and reducing some common allergens (especially with wheat and grains). Most studies show that the act of sprouting or germination actually reduces more phytic acid than soaking—up to 40% reduction—but this does take slightly more effort.

Luckily, the process of soaking and sprouting is largely hands-off, and once it becomes habit, it’s easy to plan for and incorporate into your daily routine. It’s also both cheaper and better for the environment—buying dried grains and beans in bulk cuts down on the amount of cans and packaged pulses you may be purchasing.

A note on soaking and sprouting nuts: there’s very little research on the benefits of soaking and sprouting nuts, and one recent study found that soaked almonds had no improvement digestion or gastrointestinal tolerance.

How to Soak

Getting started with soaking grains and beans is simple: place your desired amount of dried grains/beans in a large mixing bowl, cover with hot water and let sit for eight to 48 hours. Most recipes suggest soaking overnight (about eight to 12 hours—seven hours minimum). You may also add an acid like lemon juice or apple cider vinegar to increase the release of phytase. Rinse grains/beans thoroughly before cooking. In fact, cooking time may also be decreased after soaking–another added benefit.

How to Sprout

To sprout grains and beans, fill a mason jar one-third full with your dried grains/beans, add filtered water to the top of the jar, and cover with a screen lid or cheesecloth. Soak overnight and pour off the excess water. Then rinse well, without removing the screen lid, invert the jar at an angle (so air can circulate) and let it drain. Rinse the seeds twice per day, letting drain in between. Sprouts will be ready in one to four days. Rinse again, shake out excess water, and cover with a solid lid and store in the fridge. Sprouts can be consumed raw, but be careful not to overdo it, as raw sprouts may contain irritating substances (the same ones that keep animals from eating the shoots). Your best bet? Lightly steaming or sauteeing sprouts or adding to soups and casseroles.

Soaking/Sprouting Chart

Wheat, Rye, Barley8 hours3 to 4 days
Buckwheat15-20 minutes2 days
Beans (Mung, Black, Adzuki)8 to 12 hours4 days
Lentils7 hours2 to 3 days
Quinoa4 to 8 hours2 to 3 days
Wheat Berries7 hours3 to 4 days

Sprouting Kits

Here are a couple of sprouting kits that’ll make your new sprouting hobby a little simpler.

1. Seed Sprouting Jar Kit, $46,

2. Gardens Alive! Seed Sprouter, $12,

How to Use Soaked and Sprouted Seeds

Sprouting and soaking a food doesn’t change its flavor—in fact, it enhances it.

Sprouted seeds such as mung bean and broccoli seeds can be added to sandwiches and salads thanks to their light, crunchy texture. Note that I don’t recommend consuming alfalfa seeds in large quantities—the amino acid canavanine found in alfalfa sprouts can be toxic!

Sprouted grains such as quinoa or buckwheat can be used in granola or cereals.

Soaked and sprouted lentils/beans can be cooked and added to soups, stews, dals, and other main dishes.

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