By Dr. Mercola
When you grow your own vegetables and notice the tender, young plants emerging from the earth, you may be surprised to learn that not only is it OK to harvest them while they're still only a week or two old, but these sprouts and microgreens actually offer superior nutrition.1,2
Many of the benefits of sprouts and microgreens relate to the fact that, in their initial and early phase of growth, the plants contain more concentrated amounts of nutrients. As a result, you need to eat far less, in terms of amount, compared to a mature plant.
Sprouts, Microgreens and Baby Greens
Once the sprout starts to grow — but well before it reaches maturity — it's considered a microgreen. Sprouts may be harvested within just a few days or a week of growth, while microgreens are typically harvested after two to three weeks, when they've reached a height of about 2 inches.
"Baby greens" are microgreens allowed to grow to a height of about 4 inches before harvesting. All of these — sprouts, microgreens and baby greens — are packed with higher densities of nutrients than full-grown vegetables.
As noted in the book, "Microgreens: Novel, Fresh and Functional Food to Explore All the Value of Biodiversity:"3
"Microgreens are … increasingly used by haute cuisine chefs to prepare gourmet dishes intended to satisfy the needs of modern consumers, more and more health conscious and particularly attentive to their health, diet and food quality.
Although [they] are often used with the main aesthetic purpose of garnishing dishes, microgreens also have a very good nutritional profile and … are considered 'functional foods' or 'super foods' as … they can also provide bioactive compounds able to improve some functions of the organism and/or reduce the risk of diseases."
For example, research4 shows red cabbage microgreens impart more polyphenols and glucosinolates that help optimize your cholesterol levels and lower liver triglycerides.
Benefits of Sprouts
Essential fatty acids heighten and the protein quality of several vegetables improves when sprouted.
Sprouts can also contain up to 100 times more enzymes than their full-grown counterparts, which allow your body to extract higher levels of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients from other foods, and help protect against chemical carcinogens to boot.5
Minerals also bind to proteins, making them more bioavailable. Alkaline minerals such as calcium and magnesium help balance your body chemistry for both weight loss and better health overall.
Moreover, sprouting makes nuts, grains and seeds more digestible by breaking down anti-nutrients, enzyme inhibitors and lectins that can make the full-grown food hard to digest.6 Ditto for compounds known to cause gas in legumes.
A single day of soaking and sprouting the seeds can reduce anti-nutrients by 90 percent.
Another major benefit is that sprouts are easy and inexpensive to grow at home. They're a particularly excellent choice during winter months, when outdoor gardening is limited or ruled out. Another major benefit is that you don't have to cook them.
Vitamin Content Skyrockets in Sprouted Foods
Vitamins like A, B-complex, C and E also increase in sprouted foods, sometimes by 20 percent within just a few days of germination. In fact, mung bean sprouts increase in vitamin B1 by up to 285 percent, vitamin B2 by up to 515 percent and niacin by up to 256 percent.
Watercress may be the most nutrient-dense of all. Based on 17 nutrients, including potassium, fiber, protein, calcium, iron, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, zinc and vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D, E and K, watercress scored a perfect 100 in the 2014 study, "Defining Powerhouse Fruits and Vegetables."7,8
Swap Your Lettuce for Sprouts and Microgreens
A simple way to dramatically improve your nutrition is to simply swap out lettuce for sprouts and/or microgreens in your salad — or on burgers, sandwiches or tacos. Besides fiber, lettuce really doesn't provide much in terms of nutrients. Microgreens and sprouts will also add more interesting flavors to your meal.
According to research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)9 in which 25 different microgreens were evaluated, all were found to have higher nutritional densities than their full-grown counterparts, including 10 times higher amounts of valuable antioxidant compounds. Among the 25 varieties tested:
- Red cabbage microgreens had the highest concentration of ascorbic acid (vitamin C)
- Cilantro had the highest amount of the carotenoids lutein and beta-carotene, containing three times as much beta-carotene than mature cilantro
- Garnet amaranth had the highest phylloquinone (vitamin K1) content
- Green daikon radish had the highest concentration of tocopherols (vitamin E compounds)
According to USDA researcher Gene Lester, Ph.D.,10 "All of these nutrients are extremely important for skin, eyes and fighting cancer and have all sorts of benefits associated with them."
Sprouts and microgreens also contain higher amounts of phytochemicals known to protect you against a number of ailments and chronic diseases, including heart disease and cancer. For example:
- Broccoli sprouts are a superior source of the cancer-fighting compound sulforaphane. Compared to mature broccoli, broccoli sprouts contain anywhere from 10 to 100 times more sulforaphane
- Alfalfa sprouts contain saponins that help normalize cholesterol and support your immune system and bone strength11
- Most sprouts are a good source of hydrolytic enzymes that help with food assimilation
- Sunflower sprouts are high in phytosterols, which can help lower cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) by competing for enzymes used by cholesterol in your gut, thereby lowering the amount of cholesterol absorbed12
Microgreens Help You Meet Your Daily Nutrient Requirements
As noted in "Microgreens: Novel, Fresh and Functional Food to Explore All the Value of Biodiversity,"13 even a few grams of microgreens per day can "entirely satisfy" the recommended daily intake of vitamins C, E and K, based on recommendations by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). More specifically, commenting on the USDA research above:
"[I]n the case of the red cabbage, comparing the amount of the above-mentioned vitamins in the microgreens with those reported in the literature for the same species harvested at a regular ripening stage, microgreens showed an average content of vitamin C six times higher, a 400 times higher value of vitamin E and a 60 times higher content of vitamin K."
In Europe, the daily intake level recommended for adults by EFSA is 60 milligrams (mg) of vitamin C, 13 mg of vitamin E and 70 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin K. In the U.S., daily intake levels for vitamin C,14 E15 and K16 for adults are 75 to 90 mg, 15 mg and 80 to 120 mcg respectively.
Using the EFSA recommendations, an average adult could get enough vitamin C, E and K from 41 grams of red cabbage microgreens, 15 grams of green radish microgreens and 17 grams of garnet amaranth microgreens respectively.
Popular Sprouts and Microgreens
Commonly sprouted beans, nuts, seeds and grains include:
- Alfalfa: a good source of vitamins A, B, C, D, E, F and K
- Wheatgrass: high in vitamins B, C, E and many minerals
- Mung bean: good source of protein, fiber and vitamins C and A
- Lentil sprouts: contain 26 percent protein and can be eaten without cooking
- Brussels sprouts: One cup of cooked Brussels sprouts contains more than 240 percent of the recommended daily amount (RDA) for vitamin K1, and nearly 130 percent of the RDA for vitamin C. Brussels sprouts are also a good source of fiber, manganese, potassium, choline, B vitamins, antioxidants and other health-promoting phytochemicals
Any regular herb or vegetable can also be turned into a microgreen simply by harvesting while the plant is still young. It's simply a matter of not waiting until it's fully mature. Some of the most popular microgreens include:17
Growing Your Own Sprouts and Microgreens Is Good for the Environment and Lowers Your Risk of Contamination
When it comes to sprouts and microgreens, your best bet is to grow your own. While not commonly known, commercially grown sprouts are actually one of the most commonly contaminated foods, responsible for food-borne outbreaks. They're so risky, Food Safety Director Michael Doyle won't even eat them. A few years back, he told Modern Farmer:18
"We've had so many outbreaks. There is no critical control point in the sprout business. You can't wash the bacteria away. If it grows during the sprouting process, it grows into the sprout itself. You'd have to cook it or something else to kill it."
Besides lowering the risk of bacterial contamination, by growing them yourself using organic seeds, nuts, beans and grains, you can also be sure you're not exposing yourself and your family to harmful pesticides and other chemicals. Fortunately, sprouts and microgreens are really easy to grow at home. My Sprout Doctor Starter Kit comes with what I consider to be three of the best sprouts to grow — sunflower shoots, broccoli sprouts and pea shoots.
When grown in soil, you can harvest your sprouts in about a week, and a pound of seeds will probably produce over 10 pounds of sprouts. Sunflower sprouts will give you the most volume for your effort and, in my opinion, have the best taste.
For helpful recipes, visit our Food Facts library. Most people are not aware of the wealth of nutrients available in whole foods, particularly organic fruits and vegetables. By getting to know your food, you can make informed decisions about how to eat healthier. And when you consider the amount of nutrients you can get from fresh sprouts and microgreens, combined with their cost-effectiveness, adding more of them to your diet is really a no-brainer.
You can harvest between 1 and 2 pounds of sunflower sprouts from a single 10x10-inch tray. Sprouts can normally cost $20 to $30 per pound, yet you can easily grow them for less than a dollar and get them fresh. Once cut, you can store them in the fridge for about a week, but it's best to use them fresh, just after cutting. Again, sprouts and microgreens allow you to get the most benefit from a plant in the most biologically concentrated and bioavailable form.