In the newly expanded bulk food section of Whole Foods in Jericho, I came upon a score of sprouted grains (rice, quinoa), pulses (lentils, mung beans), nuts (walnuts, almonds) and various trail mixes that included combinations thereof. The prices of these sprouted items were anywhere from 50percent to 160 percent higher than their non-sprouted counterparts. Sprouted brown rice, for example, was $6.99 per pound as opposed to $2.69 for regular; sprouted walnuts were $17.99 per pound as opposed to $11.99 for regular.
What, I wondered, justified such a price tag?
First, a little plant physiology: Grains, pulses and nuts are all seeds, each containing everything needed to bring forth a new plant. When exposed to warmth and moisture, the seed starts to germinate -- as you may remember from grade school when you placed dried beans in between layers of moistened paper towels and, after a few days in the sunlight, the beans split open and put out stringy little sprouts.
In the absence of such nurturing conditions (in a box in your pantry), the seed's own built-in growth inhibitors keep germination in check. But if the seed can be coaxed into germination, some of its starch will turn into sugar, and some vitamins and minerals will become more available for the growing plant to utilize. The idea behind eating sprouted foods is that humans can also benefit from these vitamins and minerals.
But can they? I called David Levitsky, professor of nutrition and psychology at Cornell University, to find out.
Levitsky allowed that "on a strictly theoretical basis," sprouted seeds are more nutritious than unsprouted seeds. But, he said, "although the chemistry is correct, the amounts of nutrients are trivial. There's no way you would eat so much of this stuff that it would make any difference to your nutritional status."
He attributed the popularity of sprouted foods to their metaphorical message. "I understand it philosophically," he said. "Eating seedlings, the beginnings of life and getting the essence of life out of your food -- it's very appealing. But that is not a nutritional perspective. People are always looking for miracles. " Thus spake the professor of nutrition and psychology.
I should also note that there's no legal definition of "sprouted." It's easy to tell if pulses have sprouted: you'll see little white tails poking out of the beans or lentils. For grains and nuts, you have to take the manufacturer's word.
If the sugar content is indeed higher, I wasn't able to discern any difference in taste between Whole Foods' sprouted and unsprouted almonds ($13.99 vs. $8.99 a pound) or pumpkin seeds ($11.99 vs. $5.99 a pound).