Soak, Sprout, Ferment, and Cook: Bioavailability Is the New Black
You’ve surely heard the phrase “you are what you eat,” but in reality, you are what you digest.
Today’s modern culture is full of highly refined fast-foods made for convenience. The efficiency of growth, cultivation, and preparation methods of our food is at an all time high. Modern agriculture has sped up the growth cycle and yield higher crops than ever; modern machinery has transformed the speed at which we cultivate, prepare, and package foods. Innovation has sped up every step of the farm-to-table process, and globalization and grocery stores have enabled us to have essentially any type of food within arms reach at all times. Our busy lives have popularised eating on-the-go and sold millions of cookbooks that boast “15 minute” dinner recipes… but faster food is coming at the expense of our health.
This article is not going to focus on the problematic growth and cultivation methods of the food- I’ll save that for another time. It’s important to note however that the quality of food (biodynamic or organic, and preferably local) is so so important. Our food is being manipulated and abused, seeds are genetically modified, soils and plants are sprayed with poison, and all this is trickling down into your body. Your body then acts like a filter, and these toxins build up in your tissues over lifetime. Long story short: invest in high quality food. It’s an investment in your future.
What I will be discussing are the ways in which you can maximize the benefits and minimize the harm of all your wonderful organic produce that you’re consuming.
Step 1: quality food.
Step 2: quality preparation.
I have recently been diving deep into the carnivore diet literature (see my article HERE), and in exploring the wonderful world of plant foods, I realized more than ever the true importance of properly preparing foods for optimal digestion and overall health. This isn’t new information: ancestral methods of preparation have included soaking, sprouting, fermenting, and cooking across the world for a very long time. Personal heroes and inspiration to my current lifestyle are without a doubt Weston A. Price and Sally Fallon Morell, who together through extensive global research and distilling this information into cookbooks (respectively) have been re-teaching the modern generations how to nourish themselves with ancestral wisdom.
Let’s explore the ancestral ways in which we can get the most out of the foods we eat- also known as bioavailability.
The proportion of a drug or other substance that enters the circulation when introduced into the body and so is able to have an active effect.
Bioavailability is essentially the percentage of absorption of what was introduced into the body. You may eat 100% organic, wonderful nourishing foods- but consumed in their raw state, they are at best not going to be maximizing their potential and at worse might actually cause you harm.
Plant foods? Harm? Say whaaaaaaaat?
Yup. All living things are armed with their own protection mechanism to ensure their survival on this planet. For humans, we’ve used our brain capacity to create weapons, machines, shelter, etc- these things have enabled us to become the dominant species on the planet. The animal kingdom has its variety of mechanisms from claws, sharp teeth, speed, and abilities like flight or even camouflage. But what about plants? Plants too have their own survival mechanisms, and although they are more subtle, they are none-the-less real, and powerful.
The major offenders:
Phytate (phytic acid): Mainly found in seeds, grains and legumes, phytate reduces the absorption of minerals from a meal. These include iron, zinc, magnesium and calcium.
Tannins: A class of antioxidant polyphenols that may impair the digestion of various nutrients.
Lectins: Found in all food plants, especially in seeds, legumes and grains. Some lectins may be harmful in high amounts, and interfere with the absorption of nutrients.
Protease inhibitors: Widely distributed among plants, especially in seeds, grains and legumes. They interfere with protein digestion by inhibiting digestive enzymes.
Calcium oxalate: The primary form of calcium in many vegetables, such as spinach. The calcium bound to oxalate is poorly absorbed.
These anti-nutrients have been examined under the microscope and labeled in more modern times, but ancient methods of preparation acknowledged these barriers to nutrition long before we actually called them anti-nutrients and knew their effects. Ancestral intuition has given way to traditional methods of soaking, sprouting, fermenting, and cooking foods across the globe long before globalization. Before we began hyper-producing (and wasting) food like we do today, people did everything they could to maximize the nutritional profile and preserve their food- an art that most people have forgotten in modern times. Other natural ways of preparation have been lost with the advent of industrialization and the need to speed up the supply chain.
The wisdom of these ancient food preparation methods have been passed down in family recipes but are also the foundation of many Eastern medicine healing modalities like Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda. Chinese medicine were using sprouted foods over 5,000 years ago to cure ailments and East Asian cuisine is still known for their soaked, sprouted, and fermented foods like miso/ natto (fermented beans), Korean panchan, nieh (sprouted wheat, millet, barley), and kimchi (fermented cabbage mix).
The process is a little bit longer, but oh so simple Once you get the hang of soaking, sprouting, and fermenting, it will become second nature and you won’t even think twice. Let’s revive this ancestral wisdom and explore the ways in which you can get the most out of your food!
Soaking involves, well, soaking your grain, seed, nut, or legume for about 12- 24 hours in water usually with some form of acid (like lemon juice, or apple cider vinegar). Soaking is a method generally used as with grains (like rice, and oats), which do not sprout (they kind of just swell, and split). After soaking, the grains are then cooked. Yes, soaking is done pre-cooking, and makes an does enormous difference because it helps release enzyme-inhibitors and anti-nutrients, which enhances the bioavailability and eases the digestive burden.
If you consume grains, simply put them in a large glass jar the night before with a tbsp or lemon juice or apple cider vinegar, and they will be ready to use the next day. Watch your digestion transform with this simple trick!
Sprouting is like the next step up from soaking, whereby your nuts and seeds actually begin to germinate in a moist environment. Not everything sprouts, so before attempting to sprout your products- find out if they do (check out a complete list HERE). Most seeds, nuts, and legumes will sprout- but each require a slightly different methodology depending on the nature of their structure. The sprouting process typically takes at least a few days, and involves rinsing the seeds/ nuts at least once a day. Simply googling “how to sprout *insert name*” will yield all the answers to your sprouting needs!
The process of soaking and sprouting is also referred to as “activating.” The ancestral process of soaking and sprouting (or activating) is starting to gain popularity these days, and some companies are even selling such properly prepared products. Note that when a bag of activated nuts (for example) is sold, they are dry- this is because the soaked nuts (or whichever “activated” product you are buying) are then dehydrated at very low temperatures (to perserve the live enzymes), which enables the product to return to its original dry form. Nuts are particularly great once dehydrated because simply soaked/ sprouted nuts are wet and mushy; once you dehydrate them they become delicious! Some companies are now selling sprouted oats, beans, and other legumes- but honestly all you need to do is soak these grains and legumes the night before… Activating nuts is a bit more complicated but again is not very hard to do at home with a dehydrator machine.
Fermentation is the process by which a substance is broken down using bacteria, yeast, or other microorganisms. The process dates back to 7000 BC, but has likely been happening since the dawn of time. Fermenting happens naturally when a culture (like wild yeast or a microbe) is combined with a food under the right tempetature/ environment (ideally between 40-70ºF). These microbes proliferate under the right conditions and essentially take over- multiplying themselves.
Fermented foods are beautiful for so many reasons, not only does the process of fermentation break down the ingredients for better digestion, but it also boosts the nutritional content and provides the body with incredible gut-healing probiotics. Fermented foods are alive, and by multiplying the nutritional content I like to think of them as super alive.
Raw cabbage contains approximately 30 mg of vitamin C per cup, whereas raw sauerkraut (fermented cabbage) contains nearly 700mg per cup! The process of fermentation just super charges all the beneficial aspects of the food, and the live cultures have pre-digested the food so that it is actually easier to absorb the nutrients.
popular Fermented foods include:
Check out a long list of fermented foods HERE.
Don’t be fooled by dodgy fake-ferments: How to spot a fake
Fermenting is one art that hasn’t been completely lost (conceptually), but is questionable in modern day practice. Foods like yogurt, kefir, kombucha, pickles, and sauerkraut are household names in our modern times- but the quality of these ferments sold in store is often highly suspicious. Mass-production (speed, efficiency, maximizing output) can come at the expense of quality. Apart from the poor quality ingredients, things like yogurt and kefir often contain thickeners, which suggest that they were not properly fermented. When yogurt or kefir are properly fermented, the thick, creamy texture is a direct reflection of the proliferation of live bacteria from the initial milk or cream used. Mass production, however, often use a thickener (like tapioca, guar gum, milk solids, pectin, gelatin, agar, arrowroot) because the fermentation itself is not authentic. So your potentially live, nutritious, probiotic-rich food is essentially just thick deadness.
For kombucha, kvass, or water-based kefir- the problems lay in fake-carbonation. A naturally fermented beverage produces a light to moderate fizz naturally due to the live cultures. Almost all of the kombucha and kefir sold in store are artificially carbonated, which not only suggests that the product itself has no probiotic benefit- but also turns the drink highly acidic.
And finally you want to watch out for added vinegar to fermented vegetables (like pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi). Naturally fermented vegetables require technically only salt. Some people use a starter culture (of live bacteria) from a package or the remnants of the previous batch of sauerkraut to speed up the process. A starter is totally fine, but whenever you see vinegar as an ingredient, beware. The natural fermentation process of vegetables yields a naturally vinegary taste, but anytime vinegar is one of the ingredients- you should be highly suspicious that the product is in fact properly fermented.
Soaking, sprouting, and fermenting enhanced the bioavailability and reduces the anti-nutrients of foods, but these foods are still considered raw. You generally want to avoid heating anything fermented (which kills the live culture), but raw foods should be consumed mindfully- because they place a larger burden on the digestive system and can cause problems for some.
In Ayurveda the term Angi refers to our digestive capacity, and highlights the ability for an individual to digest and metabolize foods. They regard raw foods as cold, dry, light, rough, and Rajasic, a term that translates to aggravating. Raw foods dull our digestive fire and are particular harmful for those who already have a weak digestive fire.
Ayurvedic principles also highlight how different doshas (mind-body constitution) are better or worse at digesting raw foods. You can take many quiz’s online to find your dosha type (like THIS one); but intuitively you should also be able to tell by looking at your build/ general body temperature if you have a naturally strong or weak digestive fire. Typically a Vata constitution are least able to tolerate raw foods, Pitta are better able, and Kapha depends on the state of their digestive state.
Traditional Chinese Medicine has similar underlying principles in application, although the terminology does differ. Cold, raw foods are referred to as yin, and similarly will affect the digestive fire leading to dampness in the body (a breeding ground for illness). Finding the balance in TCM is the key to building Qi and blood and ultimately manifesting a thriving healthy body.
Should you cook all your food?
That’s probably unnecessary unless you have severe digestive issues/ a really weak digestive fire. If you’re dealing with gut and digestive problems you may want to consider cooking all your food for a while, but otherwise- find a happy balance. One thing to keep in mind as well are the seasons, and how the body is naturally much colder in winter, a time you would want to opt for mostly cooked foods. Warm summers offer an opportunity for more raw foods in the diet, but even then you should try to find balance; and ideally the majority of these “raw” foods should still be soaked, sprouted, or fermented.
What about the enzymes?
Yes, cooking does destroy the naturally occurring enzymes in food, but our saliva is full of digestive enzymes, and that paired with proper chewing (pre-digesting) and a strong digestive fire gives you every tool you need to properly absorb well-prepared foods. If you are currently dealing with a weak digestive fire, you can also supplement with digestive bitters (which stimulate enzyme production and stomach acid before a meal), HCL+ pepsin (which boost stomach acid), or digestive enzymes (which help break down food in your stomach). When I was dealing with weak fire a couple of years ago, my Ayurvedic doctor in Australia told me to chew on a tiny piece of raw ginger before all my meals- it works wonders. And last but not least: fermented foods! Simply incorporate a small portion of your favourite ferment with each meal to not only boost digestion but also introduce healthy microbes into your gut.
…but Don’t over cook!
Be mindful of not over-cooking foods, which destroys the foods natural Prana, a Sanskrit word that means life force energy. How much is too much? You can surely use your intuition when it comes to cooking, sort of in the way you immediately know when you’ve over-cooked the broccoli or green beans. The food innately looses it’s vibrancy, and becomes unappealing to the palate.
Ideal ways of cooking include lightly steaming, or cooking at a relatively low heat with an appropriate fat/ oil. My favourite cooking fats include tallow, lard, olive oil, and if you’re tolerant of lactose- ghee and butter.
tips to enhance digestion:
Avoid drinking liquids too close to meals (or during meals)
Stay hydrated throughout the day (but do avoid it too close to meals)
Avoid drinking cold beverages in general, room temperature or warm are best
Find a balance with fiber; there is such a thing as too much
Eat mindfully, without distraction
Avoid eating when you are in a distressed/ stressed out state
Chew your food properly
Consider a digestive aid like digestive bitters, HCL + pepsin, or digestive enzymes
Consume a variety of probiotic-rich foods, and occasionally take a course of probiotics
Consume a variety of prebiotic foods (which act as food for the probiotics)
Increase Agni by consuming fresh ginger, lime, lemon, and fermented foods with your meal
Spices can also increase your digestive fire, like cayenne, cumin, coriander, and fennel
Soak and sprout nuts and seeds before consuming them (“activate” them)
Eat seasonally, and opt for more cooked foods in the winter, and more raw foods in the summer
Certain yogic poses boost digestive fire and aid digestion, like cat-cow, and apanasana (knees to chest)
Avoid eating too close to bed time, this is a time when your body rests and repairs itself (which it cannot do if it has to digest food all night long).
Want to give fermentation a go? Here are two super easy recipes to get started:
And check out these great resources to learn more:
And click to join this epic Facebook group: “Wild Fermentation Uncensored”
Also, you need to watch this video of Brad making fermented eggs. To be honest I don’t like hard boiled eggs at all and would never make (or likely consume) this, but I watched the whole video anyways because Brad is a god damn legend. And Brad’s top 10 fermentation tips are great.