The Health Benefits of Sprouts and Microgreens
Sprouts of certain seeds and nuts are an inexpensive and simple way to add extra nutrients to the diet. They are easy to grow at home and the ultimate local superfood. Even if you don’t have room for a garden, you can grow a jar of sprouts on your kitchen counter!
I’ve made different types of sprouts on and off for years and had stopped making them for a while, then my doctor recommended broccoli sprouts to help support my thyroid. This renewed my interest in making them, but I was also curious to learn more about them.
What Are Sprouts?
Sprouting is a process of germinating seeds or beans to create sprouts which can be eaten cooked or raw (depending on the type). Sprouts are often added to salads, stir-frys, and other dishes.
Most types of nuts, grains, and seeds can be easily sprouted at home with minimal equipment (tutorial coming at the end of this post.)
The process of sprouting makes beans and seeds (and grains) easier to digest and increases the nutritional profile. I explain why in more detail here, but here’s the idea:
Benefits of Sprouting
Just like the plants themselves, different sprouts have different benefits, but have some health benefits in common:
Lower Anti-Nutrients & Phytic Acid
Sprouting helps break down the naturally occurring anti-nutrients in nuts, grains, and seeds that can make them difficult to digest, especially for those with underlying digestive or autoimmune issues.
Anti-nutrients like phytic acid bind to magnesium, zinc, calcium, and iron, making them harder to digest. In nature, this serves the purpose of allowing the seeds to pass through the digestive system of an animal intact and then grow into a plant.
This is beneficial for the seeds, but not so helpful for those of us trying to utilize the nutrients in our foods!
Sprouting solves this problem by breaking down anti-nutrients, enzyme inhibitors, and lectins. In fact, soaking and sprouting for even one day can reduce the anti-nutrient content by 90% or more.
At the same time, sprouting increases the content of many beneficial nutrients and amino acids by making them more available to the body.
Ever gotten gas from consuming beans? Chances are you won’t notice this problem if you consume properly soaked and sprouted legumes as the compounds that cause digestive disturbances and gas are broken down.
More Beneficial Enzymes
It is estimated that there are up to 100 times more beneficial enzymes in sprouts than in raw vegetables. The rapidly growing sprouts need these enzymes for their own growth and cellular health makes them beneficial for us as well.
Sprouts are also an excellent source of enzyme inducers that protect against chemical carcinogens.
More Vitamins & Minerals
Sprouting increases the vitamin and mineral content of nuts and seeds and increases the nutrient absorption of these foods. Sprouting dramatically increases the content of B-vitamins, carotene, and vitamin C.
Sprouts are considered a good source of (non-complete) proteins, antioxidants, and minerals. One study found a 10x increase in antioxidants like rutin from only three days of sprouting. Sprouting increases the amino acid content of nuts and seeds, especially of certain beneficial amino acids like lysine.
Creates Protective Compounds
Sprouts are high in a variety of compounds that help protect the body. When a person consumes a sprout, he or she is essentially consuming the entire plant and getting all the benefits of that plant.
Sprouts contain antioxidants and enzymes that support healthy cell regeneration and protect against free radical damage. Different types of sprouts support the body in various ways:
- Broccoli sprouts contain sulforaphane, a cancer-fighting compound that has been extensively studied. Sprouts contain 10-100x as much sulforaphane than adult broccoli plants and are often recommended for this reason. (Fair warning: they stink when sprouting!)
- Alfalfa sprouts are quick growing and a good source of vitamins C and K, as well as B-vitamins. They are also a source of saponins, which are said to help balance cholesterol and support the immune system.
- Most sprouts are a good source of hydrolytic enzymes that help the body assimilate food.
- Clover sprouts are a good source of isoflavones.
- Sunflower sprouts are high in protein, phytosterols, essential fatty acids, and fiber.
- Lentil sprouts are an excellent source of protein and a great way to consume lentils.
Soaking vs. Sprouting
Soaking is a great way to reduce the harmful compounds in some nuts, beans, and seeds by soaking them in warm water with an acidic substance (like lemon juice) added for a certain amount of time.
Sprouting is an extension of soaking. An acidic medium is not usually used, and a process is followed that allows the seed to germinate and start to grow. Some foods like beans should always be soaked before consuming but don’t necessarily need to be sprouted.
Others, especially seeds and some nuts, benefit from the additional step of sprouting.
What to Sprout?
So, need a cheat sheet? Here’s are my favorite things to sprout:
Best Things to Sprout
- Most nuts (except pecans and walnuts)
- Most grains (if you consume them)
- Most seeds including broccoli, pumpkin, sesame, chia, radish, alfalfa, broccoli, red clover, sunflower, and others
- Most beans – lentils and mung beans are the most common for sprouting
A few notes:
- Red kidney beans should not be sprouted as they contain a toxic compound once they sprout. They can be soaked but must be cooked before eating.
- A few nuts, like pecans and walnuts, do not sprout and are better to soak.
- Alfalfa seeds are a controversial plant to sprout as they contain canavanine, which some sources say are harmful to humans because it can inhibit the immune system. (Though this article gives a good explanation of why alfalfa sprouts may be perfectly safe.)
- Chia, hemp, and flax seeds do not typically sprout well, though they can be through very precise methods (I recommend growing them as microgreens instead).
Problems With Sprouts?
Sprouts have gotten some negative attention from time to time for their potential to carry bacteria that cause foodborne illness. In the past, they have been connected to outbreaks of salmonella and E. coli. So are sprouts too dangerous to eat?
Not so fast…
The bacteria that cause illness are often found on the seed itself. Proper preparation and sprouting methods can help avoid problems. It is also possible to find seeds that have been tested for bacteria, which MAY help reduce the likelihood of problematic bacteria.
To reduce the chances of getting sick from eating sprouts (again, a rare occurrence):
- Wash or sterilize the jar or vessel used for sprouting before each use.
- Take care to wash hands and any surfaces near the sprouts.
- Follow a proper rinsing schedule to minimize risk.
I can’t substantiate this, but one source recommends soaking sprouts in a lemon juice and water solution (1 part juice to 6 parts water) for 10-15 minutes before consuming since the pH of the lemon juice helps kill any bacteria on the sprouts.
Bottom line: Sprouts do carry the potential for foodborne illness but they also have a lot of health benefits. Statistically, a person is more likely to get sick from eating meat or eggs, but illness definitely can be caused by sprouts. Do your own research and make sure you understand the risks and benefits before consuming sprouts.
What I do: I personally still feel comfortable sprouting nuts and seeds and consuming them regularly. If you are nervous, you could always simply avoid eating raw sprouts and opt instead for soaked and sprouted grains and beans which are then cooked.
Microgreens: A Better Solution?
I’ve been experimenting lately with growing microgreens, which are essentially very small edible plants (like lettuce, radishes, beets, watercress, spinach, herbs, and greens) that are harvested when they are very young instead of being allowed to grow to full size.
They carry many of the same benefits as sprouts, but since they are grown in soil under normal growing conditions, they don’t carry the risk for illness. This can be done indoors or outdoors and seeds that are normally sprouted can just as easily be grown as microgreens and still contain the extra nutrients.
The researchers looked at four groups of vitamins and other phytochemicals – including vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta carotene — in 25 varieties of microgreens. They found that leaves from almost all of the microgreens had four to six times more nutrients than the mature leaves of the same plant. But there was variation among them – red cabbage was highest in vitamin C, for instance, while the green daikon radish microgreens had the most vitamin E.
While sprouts are germinated and grown in just water, microgreens are grown in soil with sunlight or a grow light and contain higher levels of certain nutrients. They are also incredibly easy to grow and I grow them in our kitchen with a simple seed tray and grow light.
As mentioned, some seeds, like chia and flax, are easier to grow as microgreens than as sprouts.
Check out this tutorial on how to grow sprouts and microgreens in your own kitchen!
This article was medically reviewed by Madiha Saeed, MD, a board-certified family physician. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Ever had sprouts? What is growing in your kitchen?