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Alfalfa: Beneficial to Both Humans and Livestock Alike

April 05, 2018

Story at-a-glance

  • Most parts of the alfalfa plant are edible, such as the leaves and young shoots. Alfalfa sprouts can be added to various dishes for garnishing or used in place of salad greens
  • Alfalfa is known throughout the agricultural world as hay, which is fed to livestock such as horses, cows and chickens

Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) is a crop that is also known as the “Queen of the Forages.” It is primarily grown in northwestern states such as Idaho, Oregon, Wyoming, Washington and some parts of Nevada and California.1 Historically, the alfalfa plant was discovered by Arabian horsemen who noticed that their horses gained a boost in energy and performance once it was eaten. People who ate alfalfa also received similar benefits, which helped spread its reputation around the world.

What does alfalfa look like? Fully grown, it produces flowers that have one-sided clusters, with each cluster having 10 to 20 purple petals with a leguminous shape. Alfalfa can also grow up to a meter (3.2 feet) tall, and their roots can spread as much as 15 meters (49.2 feet) down into the ground, making them resilient to droughts. The leaves are scattered among the stem, consisting of three leaflets that look like a clover.2

Most parts of the alfalfa plant are edible, such as the leaves and young shoots. Alfalfa sprouts can be added to various dishes for garnishing or used in place of salad greens.3

The Agricultural Uses of Alfalfa

Alfalfa is known throughout the agricultural world as hay, which is fed to livestock such as horses, cows and chickens. To make hay from alfalfa, the plants are allowed to grow until the early bloom period, where they are then harvested. Afterward, they are dried and cured before being fed to the animals. Alfalfa is also economically important to the U.S., because it is exported to other countries for livestock consumption.4,5

For farmers, alfalfa is popular because it adds nitrogen to the soil, which helps negate the need to use nitrogen fertilizer.6 When crops are rotated, the nitrogen that the alfalfa left in the soil will be absorbed by the new crops, which can help improve harvest quality. It can also save farmers lots of money because they don’t have to purchase fertilizer anymore.7

Alfalfa is classified as an insectary, or a plant that attracts beneficial insects. Since there are plenty of parasitic insects that feed on crops, this can reduce the quality and quantity of the harvest. Planting alfalfa beside endangered crops can divert the parasitic insects into being consumed by the beneficial insects that alfalfa attracts. Pesticide use can be avoided through this method as well.8

The Various Health Benefits of Alfalfa Sprouts

People can take advantage of alfalfa by consuming alfalfa sprouts which, despite their small size, contain a concentration of various vitamins and minerals that can help provide the following health benefits:

Improve Digestive Health A single cup of alfalfa sprouts contain 0.6 grams of dietary fiber,9 which can help improve your bowel movements. In addition, dietary fiber can reduce your risk of digestive disorders such as gastroesophageal reflux disease, constipation, hemorrhoids and duodenal ulcers.10

Reduce Inflammation Research has shown that alfalfa sprouts contain high levels of vitamins C11 which can help reduce systematic inflammation throughout your body, prevent chronic disease and oxidative stress.12

Fight Free Radicals Some animal studies have discovered that alfalfa contains antioxidant properties with varying effects. In one example, researchers noted that alfalfa helped reduce the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS),13 while another study noted that helped inhibit lipopolysaccharide-induced inflammation.14

Manage Diabetes In a mice study published in the Pakistan Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences, researchers discovered that administration of alfalfa sprouts have antihyperlipidemic and antihyperglycemic properties.15

Lower Cholesterol Levels A study published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation noted that alfalfa helped reduce hypercholesterolemia (elevated cholesterol levels in the blood) in monkeys without changing HDL cholesterol levels.16

How to Grow Alfalfa Sprouts

Planting or growing alfalfa sprouts isn’t very difficult, since you’re only growing seeds until they sprout. Another advantage to growing your own sprouts is you can avoid any diseases and pesticides that come from purchasing commercially grown sprouts. To start, you need three items: alfalfa seeds, a seed tray and organic potting soil. Once you have acquired them, follow this procedure:17

1. Soak the seeds in a bowl filled with water. This will help start the germination process.

2. Add soil into the tray evenly until it reaches a thickness of 1 inch, then lightly dampen with water using a watering can. Gently press down on the top of the soil so the seeds will stay at the top.

3. Spread the seeds evenly around on top of the soil, then cover with another tray to seal in the moisture.

4. Keep the soil damp for the next few days to ensure the seeds don’t dry out.

5. Once the sprouts emerge after around four days, place them in a spot with indirect sunlight to help them produce a green color.

6. Cut the sprouts above the soil. Wash them gently in cold water to remove any dirt.

How to Store Alfalfa Sprouts

Once your alfalfa seedlings have grown into sprouts, storing them is quite simple — all you need is your refrigerator. If space permits, you can simply place the container in which you’ve grown your sprouts into the refrigerator, where they will remain fresh for about four to five days. During this period, be sure to check them for any discoloration. Remove discolored alfalfa sprouts immediately to prevent them from spreading.18

Alfalfa Sprouts Recipe: Cumin-Spiced Lettuce Roll

Lettuce rolls (or wraps) are popular because they’re easy to prepare, and the potential flavors are endless. You can pick whatever ingredients you like, and simply wrap them in a lettuce. This recipe will show you how to use various healthy ingredients, along with alfalfa sprouts, to create a nutritious dish perfect after a tiring day at work.

Cumin-Spiced Lettuce Roll

Ingredients:

1 head of organic leaf lettuce (butter or red leaf)

1 avocado, peeled and sliced into strips

2 scallions, minced

1 red bell pepper, minced

Alfalfa sprouts

Dressing:

3 Tablespoons of fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon of honey

1 teaspoon of ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon of cayenne pepper

Salt to taste

1/4 cup of olive oil

Procedure:

1. Cut out the lettuce cores, then separate the leaves.

2. Top the leaves with some minced scallions and a few pieces of red pepper.

3. Add some sprouts and roll the leaf carefully, then secure with toothpick.

4. Continue the process with the remaining lettuce roll ingredients.

5. To make the dressing, whisk together the lemon juice, honey, ground cumin, cayenne pepper and salt. Add olive oil.

6. Serve the lettuce rolls with dressing on the side.

This recipe makes four to five servings.

(From Healthy Recipes for Your Nutritional Type)

Beware of Lectins in Alfalfa Sprouts

Research indicates that alfalfa contains lectins, which are sugar-binding plant proteins that attach to cell membranes in your body. When consumed, lectins can negatively affect your health as they have proinflammatory, immunotoxic, neurotoxic and cytotoxic properties. In addition, sprouting alfalfa can actually enhance lectin activity further.19

In light of this information, the best course of action you can take is to consume alfalfa sprouts sparingly so that you reduce the risk of lectins from damaging your health. In other words, strict moderation can help you obtain more of the benefits rather than the drawbacks. On other days, it may be better to consume other beans, seeds and grains that will have their lectin content deactivated when sprouted. For more information about lectins in your diet, read this article, “Limit the Lectins.”

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Sources and References

  • 1, 5 North American Alfalfa Improvement Conference, “Importance of Alfalfa” February 8, 2000
  • 2, 3 Edible Wild Food, “Alfalfa: Medicago Sativa”
  • 4 HorseChannel.com, “All About Hay” July 2005
  • 6 California Alfalfa and Forage Association, “Alfalfa”
  • 7 Wildflowers of the Eastern United States: An Introduction to Common Species of Woods, Wetlands and Fields, 2014
  • 8 University of California Alfalfa & Forages, “Alfalfa as an Insectary for Beneficial Insects”
  • 9, 11 USDA, Alfalfa seeds, sprouted, raw
  • 10 Nutrition Reviews, 2009 Apr;67(4):188-205
  • 12 Drug Design, Development and Therapy, 2015;9:3405-3412
  • 13 Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, 2016 Nov;81:39-46
  • 14 Journal of Biomedical Science, 2009;16(1):64
  • 15 Pakistan Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences, 2015 Nov;28(6):2061-74
  • 16 The Journal of Clinical Investigation, 1981 Jan;67(10):156-162
  • 17 Juicy Sprout, “How to Grow Broccoli Sprouts in Soil”
  • 18 The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods, Page 385
  • 19 Precision Nutrition, “All About Lectins: Here’s What You Need to Know”
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