The little sprouts provide great nutrition.

Move over baby carrots and baby peas. Even the smallest vegetables are catching on as healthy foods.

Microscale vegetables, a growing food category that includes sprouted seeds, are miniature in size but big on nutrition. Eating sprouts long before they become plants can greatly increase certain nutrient levels, said Emily Ho, professor of nutrition and director of the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University in Corvallis.

“Five- to seven-day-old seed sprouts can often offer more nutritional benefits than mature plants,” said Ho, known on campus as the “broccoli lady” for her research on the health benefits of sprouts. of broccoli

Familiar to most as simple bean sprouts, mung bean and soybean sprouts have long been used in Asian and vegetarian dishes. Health-conscious people are drawn to sprouted foods for a multitude of health benefits.

Grains, legumes, and vegetables begin their germinated life as seeds that begin the sprouting process when exposed to moisture and heat. Within a week, many sprouted plants are ready to eat before their leaves develop.

Microgreens are another member of the microscale vegetables category. But these tender, immature green seeds of arugula, radish, basil, and other plant seeds are usually harvested later than the sprouts and have a small stem and a pair of very small leaves that emerge within 10 to 20 days.

The health benefits of sprouts include better digestion of carbohydrates and proteins. Sprouting stimulates the release of enzymes to predigest starch, which can support gut health and reduce intestinal gas.

Ho explained that sprouting doesn’t change the nutritional profile of the plant, but instead helps better release beneficial compounds.

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For example, plant foods contain phytates that bind minerals like zinc, iron, and magnesium; this prevents those minerals from being absorbed into 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, allowing the minerals to be freely absorbed.

Sprouted seeds and vegetables have more vitamin C, B vitamins and antioxidants that materialize in 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-rich sprouts and microgreens would be especially helpful for the 9 out of 10 American adults who, according to federal survey data, do not consume adequate amounts of vegetables.

Some people don’t like the taste of broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, or other cruciferous vegetables, which can taste bitter due to their beneficial sulfur-containing plant chemicals. But sprouted vegetables don’t have that unique flavor and actually taste slightly sweet.

Germinating seeds and vegetables is a simple and inexpensive process with little environmental impact. Urban areas can benefit from efficient sprout production as they can be grown without soil or greenhouse and regardless of the season. They can even be grown at home, indoors or outdoors.

Young shoots and greens add color, texture and diverse flavors, from lentils and walnut sprouts in salads, sandwiches and soups to micro mint leaves in appetizers, desserts and smoothies. Food manufacturers add sprouted whole grains to tortillas, bread, pasta and breakfast cereals, although certain food processing methods can compromise their added nutritional value.

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Ho suggested that people read the list of ingredients on food packages.

“Whole grains have significant nutritional benefits, but it can be tricky to determine how much sprouted grain is actually in there,” he said.

The only downside to eating raw sprouts is that their warm, moist 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 getting good-quality seeds and sanitizing them before sprouting with full-strength vinegar or apple cider vinegar.

Sprouts that are purchased should be thoroughly washed under running water, which can reduce bacteria but not necessarily eliminate it completely. Cooking the sprouts will kill harmful bacteria, but the heat can also destroy some of their added nutritional benefits.

People should follow the expiration date on the packaging, and some sprouted products may require refrigeration.