I capitulated to friends and followed them into joining a food co-op. It’s a members-only collaborative grocery store that is governed, operated, and patronized by the people who join it, with everyone participating in some way, typically volunteering a few hours of labor each month—stocking groceries, working the checkout registers, cleaning, doing clerical jobs, etc. It has a mission to operate on behalf of its members, with extremely low mark-ups on almost all the products sold there, and with the aim of essentially breaking even, income-wise, as its members are basically just collectively buying in bulk. (This is not to say that the foods it sells are striking a blow against corporate greed: the products there, like all stores, come from capitalist businesses that have a profit motive.) The fruits and veggies and things are all top notch, it carries national brands and health food offerings with some more gourmet products; everything is really affordable. I enjoy it, but the place is rife with woo.
Much of the pseudoscience will be familiar to just about everyone, and many of the topics have been covered on the Skeptoid Podcast, The Feeding Tube, inFact, and on the Skeptoid Blog: vitamin megadoses, the natural fallacy, organic food bunkum, biodynamic farming, the trumpeted absence of GMOs, ancient wisdom, homeopathy, and on and on it goes. A lot of this stuff is mere marketing and doesn’t matter; people don’t need to eat or avoid organic foods or ancient grains or much else for sale there. Some of it is dangerous: overdosing on vitamins can be harmful, and many of the supplements on the shelves are irresponsibly zealous with their health claims. But a lot of it points to a fundamental lack of scientific thinking and the poverty of science education. The people I work and shop with are selective about what parts of science they accept, such as global warming, and what parts they discard, such as agriculture and nutrition. And really that’s no different from most everyone else on the planet—including me, by the way.
Tonight, while packing loaves of frozen “Ezekiel Bread” into a freezer, I started wondering about a particular food claim right there on the bag I was staring at. The bread is produced by Food For Life, which is vaguely religious and is big enough that its products are distributed internationally. Ezekiel bread takes its name from a Bible verse, Ezekiel 4:9, which instructs the reader to put various grains and beans into a storage jar and make bread from them. So, do with biblical nutrition what you will; the company interprets this as a command to make bread using sprouted grains: wheat, spelt, lentils, barley, millet, and soybeans (not enumerated in the verse and not available to ancient Hebrews like those who wrote the Book of Ezekiel). They’re baked into a dense, fibrous loaf, which is tasty and hearty.
But I wondered if there were any actual health or nutrition benefits.
Sprouts are a kind of health-food staple, and for good reasons: they’re delicious and easy to produce. Germinating seeds breaks down some complex compounds into simpler ones that the growing plant can quickly use to develop, such as converting starches into sugars. A lot of complicated changes happen as a seed becomes a plant, and although the digestive availability of some nutrients might be greater in sprouts, that’s typically relative and they’re still pretty paltry compared to a cooked meal. And they can be loaded with certain other naturally occurring chemicals that diminish when cooking. Many seeds and sprouts can be high in lectins, which are protective proteins that some plants use to defend against pests and even digestion, so that they’re more likely to survive and germinate. They can provoke an immune response, too, potentially making people who eat them ill. Sprouting them can reduce lectins, but cooking them really knocks them out. (Incidentally, some beans, such as red kidney beans, are so high in lectins that they can only be eaten cooked, not sprouted.) There’s a longer laundry list of other naturally occurring chemicals in raw sprouts that can affect people. Nathanael Johnson, in his book All Natural: Skeptic’s Quest for Health and Happiness in an Age of Ecological Anxiety (2013), runs down his own experience overdosing on plants’ defensive compounds and becoming malnourished during what could be described as his youthful flirtation with orthorexia.
So there’s interesting things that happen in sprouts, but there doesn’t seem to be much a lot that changes them, nutritionally, from regular grains. Comparing nutrition labels between Ezekiel bread and a common brand of whole wheat bread, Oroweat, the differences in every metric are negligible. Oroweat has the same amount of protein, more vitamins, identical fiber, and the same zero grams of trans fat. While sprouting may change the makeup of the seed at the molecular level, the contribution of those changes to the overall makeup of the bread is essentially zero.
Food For Life claims that its bread is “rich in protein, vitamins, minerals and natural fiber with no added fat.” The same is true for the whole wheat competitor. Food for Life also describes that “We discovered when these six grains and legumes are sprouted and combined, an amazing thing happens. A complete protein is created that closely parallels the protein found in milk and eggs.” (Oroweat doesn’t give a lofty description of its amino acid profile.) How exactly their product resembles the protein in milk and eggs is unclear. Even less so, why the protein of milk and eggs should be so desirable. This kind of metaphor for the protein in its food should be approached warily: Food For Life attributes at least some of its dietary information to the Price-Pottenger Foundation, a nonprofit that believes that people need to eat more animal fats (e.g. milk, eggs, and meat) and that modern agriculture is making food less nutritious. Price-Pottenger’s ideology doesn’t have a scientific basis, and their assertions are basically all sourced with other Price-Pottenger talking points.
Food for Life is essentially as benevolent as Monsanto or YUM! Brand Foods or any other company: it’s an international company that’s trying to make money. Furthermore, it has a sales pitch that lines up with two widely supported faith ideologies: the benefit of consuming animal products made using “traditional” farming techniques, and religion. These aren’t based in evidence, they’re based in belief. If you want a tasty, seed-y bread, Food for Life is pretty good. If you want nutritious bread, you can choose that or any other brand. Trust me, I know: I love sandwiches and toast.