A few months ago, a friend told me she had started sprouting her beans before cooking them. I expressed surprise that this was something one could just start doing with little training or equipment. “Clearly, I grew up with parents even more hippie than yours,” she replied as she explained that you can, in fact, grow sprouts with only some seeds, some water, and a small container. Maybe. Or, maybe she just grew up in California, the epicenter of hippies, health food, and sprout eating for the last forty years.
But, let’s be honest, in some ways we are all Californians now. We are maybe 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.
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. What vitamins a sprout contains depends 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 because of their high nutritional content. In the U.S., interest in sprouts began during World War II when a 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.
So, if you’re looking to take advantage of these near-miraculous nutritional powerhouses, what do you need to know?
Let’s start with how to buy sprouts—you know, 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. Because almost all sprouts are grown in greenhouses they are actually 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 will quickly find that there are many kinds. The sprouts Americans are most familiar with are 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. Moreover, because seeds are part of most sprouts you eat, sprouts are an expensive crop. 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.
If you still think sprouts are hippie food without much appeal, you might take a look at microgreens, which have recently begun to appear in grocery stores. Microgreens pack a lot of the same nutritional punch as sprouts, but have grown for a little longer than sprouts 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.
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.