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Robby Gardner is a freelance journalist in Los Angeles, specializing in fresh produce and health food ingredients.
Why settle for protein when you can have protein and increased phytonutrients?
As essential as plant protein is to many health foods and dietary supplements, numerous other nutrients such as vitamins and minerals are key to making healthy people. Getting more phytonutrients from plant protein sources, then, should be a welcome advantage. Fortunately, this can be done through sprouting.
Protein-containing plants, such as grains, legumes, and seeds of vegetables, are often sproutable. Expose the plant material (e.g., a seed) to water and light under precise conditions, and it will start to sprout. At the same time, enzymes will awaken inside of the plant material, encouraging the growth of nutrients that the seed needs to turn into a mature plant. But stop the sprouting process at just the right time along the way, and a seed in mid-sprout can attain an optimal density of nutrients before the plant keeps growing. It’s what more and more ingredient suppliers are specializing in today, and with good reason.
Sprout Selection and Nutrition
For decades, researchers have documented significant quantities of nutrients in sprouts, oftentimes to greater degrees than those found in mature plants. These nutrients include vitamin B, antioxidants, omega-3s, lignans, and even protein and fiber by way of increased crude content.
But each plant is different. If one examines, for example, the research performed by FutureCeuticals Inc. (Momence, IL) on its SproutGarden line of sprouted plant powders, results are pretty wild. Sprouted alfalfa scores higher than mature alfalfa in zinc and protein, but lower in sodium and iron. So when ingredient suppliers have literally dozens of different sprouted ingredients to offer, making the choice of sprout can be tough. This is where supplier expertise is helpful.
“It’s really a case of knowing the desired formulation balance that dictates which sprout or blend of sprouts to be used,” says Hartley Pond, vice president of technical sales for FutureCeuticals. In addition to knowing which sprouts to use, Pond says understanding the precise amount of time and light exposure during sprouting is also critical, as is having high-quality seeds or grains. Trusty suppliers should also have outlined procedures for how to safeguard the nutrients in their sprouted ingredients. In the case of Synergized Ingredients (Moab, UT), its Synergized sprout powders are immediately freeze-dried at the harvest location and cold-milled into fine powders for nutrient preservation.
Despite the great possibilities to obtain nutrient-dense sprouts, each supplier has its own way of doing things, and it’s safe to say that two companies can produce two very different sprouts, even if they are using the same seed.
“Price, turnaround time, and then quality unfortunately seem to be driving a lot of customers,” says Élan Sudberg, CEO of the analytical testing laboratory Alkemist Labs (Costa Mesa, CA), which routinely performs analytics on sprouts for the industry. “What these companies don’t realize is that the turnaround time may cause the sprout manufacturers to give them sprouts that are very immature. We get a lot of seeds called ‘sprouted seeds’ [delivered to our lab] that just look like seeds-which to me means they may not have sprouted for long enough.”
To avoid the risk of buying immature sprouts, manufacturers may want to ask their suppliers for phytonutrient specifications, if it’s in the budget. Companies like Alkemist Labs can then perform nutrient verification tests to see that those nutrient specs were correct at the point of first sale and for routine shipments thereafter. This kind of third-party verification will help when marketing teams want to make cute label claims, like “contains X amount of vitamin B, thanks to sprouting.”
For the purpose of marketing protein-rich products, using sprouted plants with the highest natural sources of protein will be most economical-sources like soy, wheat, and rice.
AIDP Inc. (City of Industry, CA) is sprouting rice and extracting the protein from it. “Sprouted brown rice protein” sounds nice, doesn’t it? Like any other brown rice, AIDP’s rice is harvested from the field and dehusked to reveal the whole rice grain with its bran, germ, and endosperm parts; after, the grain is repeatedly rinsed and soaked at specific time intervals until the rice is sprouted. AIDP then isolates the protein from most of the sprout, and along with protein comes phytonutrients that wouldn’t have been there without sprouting.
If published studies are true, sprouting rice can increase this grain’s vitamin E and vitamin B, and even GABA, multiple times over. GABA is a special amino acid that, when consumed, may elicit feelings of calm in humans. What’s more-and this goes for other sprouts, too-anti-nutrients such as phytic acid decrease. Experts say reduced phytic acid makes foods more digestible.
While plants like rice and soy can give finished products lots of “sprouted protein,” there is no harm in marketing products with sprouted ingredients that have smaller amounts of protein either-say, in the single digits of protein grams per serving.
“I think something like that will add up throughout the day,” says Alan Rillarta, AIDP director of branded ingredient sales. “I’m not sure if I just speak for myself, but I don’t stop at one serving of chips. It’s very additive. Throughout the day, you can take a gram [of protein] here, two grams there. You can also sit down and eat half a bag of chips, which could constitute something like 20 g [of protein].”
Some might think to question the safety of sprouted ingredients, based on the fact that sprouted plants such as alfalfa sprouts are sometimes recalled from grocers because of bacterial contamination. But suppliers will have you remember: sprouted ingredients on the industrial side just aren’t grown and processed in the same manner as farmed-and-plucked sprouts like brussels and alfalfa.
Mature sprouts germinate for longer time periods. More importantly, mature sprouts grow in water-intensive environments and are still quite moist when they arrive at (and sit) on grocery shelves. This high water contact-coupled with the risk of temperature changes during transport-creates opportunity for proliferation of bacteria. The industrial game, however, just tends to be drier.
Synergized Ingredients, for example, says the moisture content of its organic sprouts is less than 6%. This means that if the ingredients are stored properly, their water activity is not high enough to cause microbial issues. Trusty sprouted-ingredient suppliers may employ sophisticated drying and dehydration techniques to remove water from the ingredients before they are packaged for bulk sale, and they say it can make for very safe sprouted ingredients.
A Sprouting Success Story
A manufacturer that does everything right and works with honest suppliers should have a lot to gain from sprouting, because even though sprouting has been around for centuries, the term is just now starting to crop up on product ingredient labels and in the public consciousness.
Jim Breen is the CEO of Way Better Snacks, a snacks maker that has sprouted ingredients in each of its tortilla chip, pita chip, and cracker lines-over a dozen sprouted ingredients altogether. He says he is seeing the consumer learn about sprouts quite quickly. “We only launched our brand three years ago, and at the beginning people were like, ‘You’re going to do what? You’re going to sprout what?’ Now we’re hearing, ‘Oh yeah, sprouting’s really good for you, isn’t it?’”
For sticking his nose out there and really highlighting sprouted ingredients, Breen and Way Better Snacks were pioneers for what is now a rapidly growing segment of sprouted health products calling out one simple, holistic, and healthful word: sprouted.