Move over baby carrots and petite peas. Even tinier vegetables are catching on as go-to healthy foods.
Microscale vegetables, a growing food category that includes sprouted seeds, are miniature in size yet big in nutrition. Eating sprouts well before they become full-blown plants can crank up certain nutrient levels considerably, said Emily Ho, nutrition professor and director of the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University in Corvallis.
"Five- to seven-day-old seed sprouts can often offer more nutrition benefits than the mature plants," said Ho, who's known around campus as the "broccoli lady" due to her research on the health benefits of broccoli sprouts.
Mung bean and soybean sprouts, familiar to most as just bean sprouts, have long been used in Asian and vegetarian dishes. Health-conscious people are attracted to sprouted foods for a multitude of health benefits.
Grains, legumes and greens all begin their sprouted life as seeds that begin the process of germination when exposed to moisture and warmth. Within a week, many sprouted plants are ready to eat before their leaves develop. Microgreens are another member of the microscale vegetable category. But these tender, immature greens of arugula, radish, basil and other plant seeds are typically harvested later than sprouts and have a tiny stem and very small pair of leaves that emerge within 10-20 days.
The health benefits of sprouts include improved digestion of both carbohydrates and proteins. Germination stimulates the release of enzymes to pre-digest starch, which may aid in gut health and reduce intestinal gas.
Ho explained that sprouting doesn't change the nutrition profile of the plant, but rather helps better release beneficial compounds.
For example, plant foods contain phytates that bind with minerals such as zinc, iron and magnesium; this prevents those minerals from being absorbed in the body. Humans don't have the enzymes to break down phytates, but the sprouting process helps release enzymes in the plant to do just that, which allows for minerals to be freely absorbed.
Sprouted seeds and greens have more vitamin C, B vitamins and antioxidants that materialize at higher concentrations.
"You can eat 50 cups of broccoli or a single cup of broccoli sprouts for similar nutrition and benefit," Ho said.
Eating nutrient-dense sprouts and microgreens would be especially helpful for the 9 in 10 U.S. adults who, based on federal survey data, don't consume adequate amounts of vegetables.
Some people don't like the taste of broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage or other cruciferous vegetables, which can taste bitter because of their sulfur-containing beneficial plant chemicals. But sprouted vegetables are free of that unique flavor and actually have a slightly sweet taste.
Sprouting seeds and greens is a simple and inexpensive process, and has little environmental impact. Urban areas can benefit from efficient sprout production as they can be grown without land or a greenhouse and independent of the season. They can even be grown at home, indoors or outdoors.
Young sprouts and greens add color, texture and diverse flavors – from lentil and nut sprouts on salads, sandwiches and soups to micro-mint greens on appetizers, desserts and in smoothies. Food producers add sprouted whole grains to tortillas, bread, pasta and breakfast cereals, although certain methods of food processing may compromise their added nutritional value.
Ho suggested people read the ingredient list on food packaging.
"Whole grains have significant nutritional benefits, but it can be tricky to determine how much sprouted grain is actually in there," she said.
The one drawback to eating raw sprouts is that their warm, moist-growing environment is also the perfect medium for bacteria to grow and flourish, including salmonella, listeria and E. coli. Young children, older adults, pregnant women and anyone with a weakened immune system should avoid eating raw or even lightly cooked sprouts of any kind.
To reduce the risk of foodborne illness, Ho suggested procuring good quality seeds and sanitizing them before sprouting with undiluted vinegar or apple cider vinegar.
Sprouts that are purchased should be washed thoroughly under running water, which may reduce bacteria but not necessarily eliminate it altogether. Cooking sprouts will kill harmful bacteria, but heat may also destroy some of their added nutritional benefits.
People should follow the "use by" date on the packaging, and some sprouted products may require refrigeration.
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