Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Soaking Your Food, and Other Nutritional Secrets

I've wanted to specify some of my soaking practices for a while, but there are still a few gaps in what I know and understand that I had hoped to fill in. I've decided to forge ahead anyway.

So many foods benefit from soaking, nearly every shelf-stable plant product. Grains, beans, nuts; I'm still not completely clear on the exact benefits of soaking each of them and for how long, I know it varies, but I'm in the habit now and it can never hurt to let them soak. Or, taken to the next level, let them sprout and/or ferment. (I recently read the fascinating book Wild Fermentation, which is very fringe and mad-science-y and really sparked my mind in new ways.)

Here's why. Chelation, and phytic acid. OK, don't run away, this is fun science about your food.

When you get a grain, a nut, or a bean, it's really a seed for a plant; and it's meant to remain dormant until conditions are right for it to sprout and grow into the next generation of wheat or lentils or what-have-you. Basically, it's on lockdown, with all its vital nutrients kept immobilized until it's exposed to warmth and moisture. This lockdown is known as chelation, and uses a molecule called phytic acid, which is found primarily in the bran. It grabs onto most important minerals such as iron, calcium, zinc, and magnesium and keeps them from getting digested or absorbed. So while whole-grain and high-fiber foods are potentially the most healthy and nutritive, they also have the highest phytic acid content, which effectively counteracts all the good in them.

Luckily, as happens so often in nature, the remedy is included in the package. The seed also usually contains an enzyme, phytase, which kicks in to unlock those nutrients when it's given a warm, moist environment. That's its cue to get all those powerful, essential compounds going. Even better, give phytase some friendly bacteria to help it out, such as sourdough starter -- it's essentially a form of pre-digestion so that your body gets the most out of that grain, or bean, or nut. The longer you soak, apparently the better, though for me it's usually just overnight because I've been able to make that stick as a habit.

Did you understand the science? It's not too crazy; we learned in grade school that our saliva and our stomach are full of enzymes to break down the various components of our food. Of course not being ruminants, we don't actually produce the enzyme to break down that bran and get at this vital little package. Cows make an enzyme for that, but we don't, and once that particular type of food is in our gut it's not going to get enough of the right treatment.

(Which is why all your childhood fears about sprouting a watermelon plant in your tummy were not well-founded, though I'll bet you just thought it was because the sun don't shine in there. Really, it was all about chelation and phytic acid!)

There's one kicker, though: that powerful, friendly phytase, that unlocks everything, isn't always there when you need it. Rye and wheat have the highest levels, but mostly within a two-week window of being freshly ground and only if they haven't been heated past a threshold which destroys the enzyme. Some grains, such as brown rice and oats, have barely any phytase in the first place, so a good soak is only going to make a small dent; and most whole-grain commercial flour and cereal wreck the phytase with heat during processing.

So, this is the background for a lot of the breakfast menus you'll see me post, as well as the reason I invest the time and money in grinding my own wheat for bread, muffins, and pancakes. We stopped eating cereal regularly in about 2008, when we finally became ineligible for WIC (after 8 years!) and I decided not to pay for it myself; then 2 years later I learned a little about phytic acid and the 'extrusion' manufacturing process for cereals, which usually involves high heat and changes the nutritional profile of the food components, and that cemented my decision. Since then we've relied heavily on cooked grains for our morning food, and I generally measure the grain and liquid into a pot the night before and then just turn on the flame when I get up.

I've gone on for a while, so I'll resist adding more details and causing your eyes to glaze over at this point. If your curiosity is further aroused, poke around the web, there's tons there and following your own train of thought will probably be more beneficial to your learning process.

You don't have to go to extremes to start this process; or maybe, some varied and dim benefits make it not worth it at all! I didn't do it overnight, I just decided it was worth a try every once in a while, and it ended up sticking. Actually, I still don't feel an urgent need to dig into the deep, deep science of how long to soak or ferment each particular ingredient, but I'm still pleased to be moving in the right direction. I feel like it's one of the best ways to increase the value of what we're eating without spending anything extra, and there are no nutritional risks in trying it. So, if my experience can be any guide for you, I hope this helps!

This recipe was given to me by a friend ages ago, and while it was delicious, I always thought it odd that it would specify to let it sit for an hour before baking. What the heck? Now I've discovered that 1 hour is the magic number for freshly-ground wheat to get rid of the majority of its phytic acid through soaking. Though I still don't usually get up early enough to bother with that step, it's fascinating. And years later, still one of our favorite, favorite foods!


2 c. sugar
3 c. whole wheat flour
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. cloves or allspice
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. nutmeg
½ c. oil
3 eggs
1 ½ c. pumpkin (one 15-oz. can)
½ c. water
1 c. raisins

Stir together dry ingredients, whisk together wet ingredients in separate bowl, combine and mix well.  Stir in raisins.  Let sit for one hour. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes.  Makes 2 dozen.

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