“We sprout 28 grains, seeds, nuts and legumes in our facility, which currently allows us to sprout 120,000 to 150,000 lbs of grains a week and will ultimately allow us to handle 240,000lbs. We're the world’s biggest producer of organic sprouted grains and we’re still growing in the triple digits," Sutton told FoodNavigator-USA.
“But it still feels like we’re just at the tip of the iceberg,” added Sutton, who generates the bulk of her revenues through bulk sales to food manufacturers but also sells retail products online and in Whole Foods and other bricks & mortar locations.
“Sprouting is a time honored tradition, but the movement is now really taking off in mainstream grocery, and now you’re seeing sprouted grains in croutons, cereals, bars, bread, rolls, pizza dough, cookies, baby food and even energy drinks.
“Red and white wheat are still the biggest [part of the business by volume], but sprouted oats are sky-rocketing, and there’s also a lot of interest in sprouted sorghum, quinoa and even sprouted corn grits, especially here in the south. We’re also sprouting almonds, which are now popping up in everything from granola to nut butters and energy bars.
“Sprouted pulses are also on-trend this year, although we’ve been sprouting them since 2010.”
Technical, sensory and nutritional benefits of sprouted grains
Sprouted grains have been allowed to germinate (sprout) in a controlled manner by exposing them to moisture. This process is then halted by gently drying the grains at just the right time (after beneficial enzymes have been activated to work their magic, but before the grains are ‘drowned’), explained Sutton.
“All the grains go through a soaking cycle and then we go into the sprouting cycle of 24-36 hours depending on the grain. Mostly for the gluten-free grains and legumes, when you have a visible protrusion at the end of the grain you know you’ve successfully made the transformation, but you can also test for nutritional changes such as significant changes in vitamin C. If you sprout them too far, you can get a grassy taste.
“With gluten-containing grains, we look at falling numbers [by using tests that measure the alpha-amylase enzyme activity in grains, to determine the appropriate point at which to halt the sprouting process]. If you over-sprout wheat, for example, it can lose too much gluten and change the baking characteristics and may not perform the way you want it to. So our process doesn’t break down a great deal of the gluten.”
According to SPINS data, dollar sales of products featuring a 'sprouted' label claim rose 13.82% to $261.6m across all food retail channels (natural, specialty, conventional multi-outlet) in the 52 weeks to September 4, 2016.
Grocery is the biggest category for prodducts featuring sprouted claims, with sales up 13.77% to $247.6m, followed by refrigerated (+10.16% to $12.5m), and frozen (+71.63 to $1.6m).
As for retail channels, "We show 'sprouted' to be selling about $160+ million in conventional alone over the past year, with natural and specialty accounting for the other $100m," said SPINS.
The dry approach to sprouting. Some companies sprout the grain then dry it. At this point, the sprouted grain can be stored until it’s cooked as a side dish, or it can be milled into sprouted grain ﬂour, which is in turn used to make a wide variety of products.
The wet approach to sprouting. Other companies mash the wet, sprouted grains into a thick purée which is used to make breads, tortillas, muﬃns and other products. These products are often described as 'ﬂourless' and are frequently sold frozen.
Source: The Whole Grains Council
Sprouted grains provide functional benefits for bakers
While sprouted grains offer functional benefits for bakers (improved baking performance, reduced proofing time), they also promise consumer benefits from improved digestibility to higher nutrient levels and improved flavor, said Sutton.
“It can be a real cost saver for commercial bakers because you don’t have to spend so much time kneading and proofing.”
Tests also show that the bio-availability of some nutrients – notably B vitamins, vitamin C, folate, ﬁber, and essential amino acids - is also higher in sprouted grains because the sprouting process activates enzymes that significantly reduce components such as phytic acid which are designed to lock in nutrients and stop the seed germinating before it’s planted, she added.
“We’ve done tests on our oats, and sprouting can reduce phytic acid by 60-85%. But it all depends on the grain.”
According to the Whole Grains Council (click HERE), sprouting grains can cause many changes including:
- Complex molecules become simpler and easier to digest
- Minerals such as iron, calcium, manganese, become more bioaccessible
- Vitamin C, folate, and antioxidants can increase [ORAC scores of sprouted seeds are higher]
- Insoluble fiber decreases; soluble fiber increases
- Gluten decreases
Definitions: What are sprouted grains and who decides?
However, while a definition from the AACCI (see box below) is often cited by industry, there is no regulated definition of ‘sprouted grains’ and no agreed protocols over when the germination process should be halted, or what label claims (eg. which nutrients are increased, by how much?) firms can make, said Sutton, who is working with the Whole Grains Council to explore whether industry standards can be firmed up.
“It’s important to me that we maintain the integrity of sprouted grains. Of course people will have proprietary techniques, so we’re not trying to standardize the process, but if you say you’re supplying sprouted flour, for example, that should mean that 100% of the grains use to make the flour are sprouted, not only 5-10% of them.”
When it comes to finished products making ‘sprouted’ claims, it’s best left to the FDA to decide whether than means the companies in question should use exclusively sprouted grains/flour, she said.
If one company is doing a bad job, it reflects badly on the whole category, especially for consumers buying sprouted grains fo digestive health reasons, she added.
Claims about sprouted grains
As for claims about the nutritional benefits of sprouting, because they vary according to the grain, generic claims about increases in vitamin C or other nutrients would be unwise, she said. “As part of our discussions with the Whole Grains Council, we’re trying to figure out whether we talk about specific increases for specific grains, or reductions in starch, but its early days.
“If you’re going to have specific standards you also need companies to test their products through third party labs to back up any claims being made.”
AACCI definition of sprouted whole grains, 2008: "Malted or sprouted grains containing all of the original bran, germ, and endosperm shall be considered whole grains as long as sprout growth does not exceed kernel length and nutrient values have not diminished. These grains should be labeled as malted or sprouted whole grain."