Have you ever sprouted your own beans? You can, in fact, grow bean sprouts with only some seeds, some water, and a small container. You don’t have to be a hippie, a health food fanatic, or a Californian to pull it off.
But, let’s be honest, in some ways we are all Californians now. Maybe we’re more hipster than hippie, but we’ve all embraced healthy, organic food. And, the next frontier, after the bulk aisle and the homemade kale chips, is sprouting.
Benefits of Sprouts
Sprouts have become popular for a reason. In our health food-obsessed culture, sprouts have a whole lot to offer. Seeds, beans, and many grains can all be sprouted, and, once they are, the sprouted seeds have up to 30 percent more protein than their un-sprouted counterparts. The vitamins in a sprout depend on the seed it is sprouted from, but almost all sprouts are potent sources of Vitamin C, Vitamin B, and iron. Sprouts are also full of phytonutrients (or phytochemicals), the many different organic compounds that help plants function and may also help our bodies function better. These include lycopene, beta-carotene, and chlorophyll along with many, many others. Increasing numbers of studies show phytonutrients serving as powerful antioxidants and anti-inflammatories and providing many other health benefits as well.
Although sprouts have recently enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in the U.S., they have played a vital role in the diets of many Asian cultures for years. In the U.S., interest in sprouts began during World War II, when Cornell nutrition professor Clive McCay published an article highlighting the nutritional benefits of soy bean sprouts. It began:
Wanted! A vegetable that will grow in any climate, will rival meat in nutritive value, will mature in 3 to 5 days, may be planted any day of the year, will require neither soil nor sunshine, will rival tomatoes in Vitamin C, will be free of waste in preparation.
Convincing, right? If you’re looking to take advantage of these near-miraculous nutritional powerhouses, here’s what you need to know.
Types of Sprouts
Let’s start with how to buy sprouts—just in case you aren’t receiving them handily pre-selected in your Blue Apron boxes. Sprouts may seem like a seasonal food, but, as McCay’s wanted ad points out, they are not. Almost all sprouts are grown in greenhouses, making them a very practical and powerful source of all the good things fresh vegetables bring you—vitamins, fiber, and phytonutrients—year round.
When you shop for sprouts, you’ll quickly notice that there are many kinds. Americans are most familiar with alfalfa sprouts and mung bean sprouts. Alfalfa sprouts are the tangle of green yarns that you often find on sandwiches; mung bean sprouts are the crunchy white stems that you often find cooked in Asian food. These days though you can also regularly find chickpea sprouts, lentil sprouts, and broccoli sprouts in stores. Research suggests that different sprout varieties offer different health benefits—broccoli and radish sprouts appear to be particularly high in antioxidants, for example. Different sprouts also have very different textures and tastes. If a pile of alfalfa sprouts has just never been your thing, crunchy chickpea sprouts may hold much more appeal. In other words, don’t write them all off.
Whether you are growing sprouts in a jar in your kitchen or a sprout farmer is growing a crop for commercial use, the process begins the same way. First, seeds are soaked for about eight hours. After they soak, the seeds get stored in a humid, ventilated container in a relatively warm spot for about three days until they have sprouted. To prevent excessive heat build up or the growth of fungus, the seeds then have to be rinsed a few times every day.
I spoke with Barbara Sanderson from the International Sprout Growers Association who explained that this process, while fairly easy when it’s taking place in a jar in your kitchen, is quite labor intensive for commercial farmers. Sprouts can also be an expensive crop, because they require more seeds to grow. A broccoli farmer might get a number of heads of broccoli from one seed, but a sprout farmer sells each seed once it has sprouted.
Sprouts have also posed some difficulties for farmers because their growing conditions can foster harmful bacteria. The warm and humid conditions in which sprouts grow can also foster the growth of e. coli and salmonella. Of course, all raw vegetables carry some of this risk. As with all vegetables, if you are worried about bacteria you might choose to cook your sprouts. If you are eating them raw, you should definitely make sure to buy the freshest possible sprouts and, as I’m sure goes without saying, avoid sprouts that seem to have become a bit slimy or smelly.
What about Microgreens?
Microgreens pack a lot of the same nutritional punch as sprouts, but have grown for a little longer, and are harvested without the seeds. In other words, sprouts germinate in water just long enough to develop a stem and roots. When they get to your plate, you eat the seed, the sprout, and the root. Microgreens, on the other hand, are actually planted in soil where they grow for seven to 14 days before their green shoots are harvested. Research suggests microgreens, like sprouts, contain far more vitamins and phytochemicals than fully matured vegetables.
How to Use Sprouts & Microgreens
Both sprouts and microgreens are easy additions to salads and sandwiches. Experimenting with cooking them is a great idea too. However, you use them they are a quick way to add crunch, color, fiber, vitamins, and those elusive phytochemicals to a meal.