When grains are ready to be harvested, it’s important that they’re in optimal condition. Not only do the plants need to be mature, but timing and the weather also play an important role. These factors can make the difference between the success and failure of the farm and miller, and the quality of the food that their harvested grains produce.
When the harvesting of grains is delayed due to wet conditions, germination, or sprouting, can occur within the grain head. Pre-harvest germination puts grains at risk for producing less stable and quality output (ex, flour, dough). To produce quality food, grains should be harvested prior to the sprouting process.
Grains can be tested at the mill to determine if, and how much pre-harvest sprouting has occurred. The result of this test is known as the Falling Number. The test was developed in the 1950s and has since become the world standard in the grain and flour milling industries.
How does it work?
The Falling Number is essentially the number of seconds the test plunger takes to fall through the sample grain mixture. If the plunger falls completely through the grain sample quickly, the number of seconds will be low. This means that there is a lower amount of starch in the mixture, due to the increased enzyme activity of the sprouting. If the plunger falls through the sample slowly, the number will be higher. This means the starch content is higher, which makes the mixture thicker.
Which is better? Consider that if the Falling Number test were a race, the last one to make it to the finish line would be the winner.
Here’s a general translation of Falling Numbers:
- Numbers higher than 300 indicate that no sprouting has occurred
- Numbers between 200–300 indicate that some sprouting has occurred
- Numbers lower than 200 indicate that severe sprouting has occurred
The Effect on Food
A lower falling number (below 300) means there is increased enzyme activity, which generates too much sugar, reduces starch, and will result in sticky dough, dark and coarse crust, and a gummy texture in breads. The shape and volume of the loaf will also be smaller, potentially caved-in looking, or be full of pockets or even hollow inside. Pasta made from grains in this number range will be soft and mushy and have a shorter shelf life.
A higher falling number (over 300) reveals that there is no sprouting present, and less enzyme activity means more starch is present. With bread, this brings a lighter color, better rising dough and a drier texture. Pasta made from high Falling Number grains will be firmer and have a longer shelf life than lower number grains.
Millers are concerned with the Falling Number because it represents the strength of their product to bakers. If a baker buys grains or flour with a low Falling Number, their products will look small and unhealthy, which consumers likely won’t want to buy. So, the Falling Number is an important measurement for this segment of the food industry.
Aren’t sprouted grains supposed to be more nutritious? Visit the grocery store and you’ll see all kinds of evidence of this. And it’s true.
How is that possible?
Sprouted grain products use post-harvested grains, sprouted in a controlled environment. With pre-harvest sprouting, the issue lies in the germination process, the timing of the harvest, and the structural value of the dough that pre-harvest sprouted grains will produce.
Once the sprouting process begins on pre-harvested grains, the life cycle of the grain is progressing. If moisture exposure continues, the sprout may begin to ferment or rot. If the sprout doesn’t ferment and remains healthy, it will eventually turn into a grass stalk, which isn’t digestible by humans.
On the positive side, sprouting does cause the nutrients to change. The starch within the grain endosperm is transformed to become more easily digestible, and the sprouted grain potentially contains a higher amount of Vitamins B and C, folate, fiber and essential amino acids.
However, timing is key. A field of grains doesn’t conform to an identical sprouting process. Each grain will progress at its own rate, making it difficult, if not impossible, to harvest all the sprouted grains at their peak moment. Harvesting grains during the sprouting phase will likely result in a mix of low and mid-range Falling Numbers, which won’t produce structurally solid flour, dough, and ultimately, food.
Sprouting grains post-harvest allows the control to keep the germination process consistent within the grain quantity, and to have the ability to stop the germination process before it becomes too rampant. In doing so, it is possible to obtain the higher nutritional value and still retain some structural quality. This is the method used for various sprouted grain products found in stores, and can also be done by individuals that want to experiment with the optimal timing of the sprouting process.
The natural process of grains can have positive and negative outcomes for both millers and consumers. Whether you buy whole grains to mill your own flour at home, or like to buy sprouted grain products at the grocery store, hopefully this information helps you better understand the context of sprouted grains in the harvesting process.
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