Nutrition Discussion: Sprouts!

A silly, personal story first, because if I don’t say it now, I’ll be thinking about it the whole time.  Two important facts: when I was young I had long hair, like past my behind long, and I grew up eating weird food.  I still do, obviously, but as a child I ate more carob and almond butter than pizza and chips.  After kindergarten one day, I came to my mother looking very upset and requested she no longer pack hummus and sprout pita sandwiches for me.  Apparently, looking quite stricken, I had told her that when I was eating my sandwich, “I can’t tell what’s hair and what’s sprout.”

I still stand by that problem.  For sprout’s sake, if your hair is going anywhere near your face due to wind, a fan, extra healthy curls, eating during a hair style appointment, etc., please pull it back, you will thank me.

Salad mix sprouts, broccoli, kale, alfalfa, and red clover sitting on top of my new sprouter after harvesting.

Ok, now that I’ve got that off my mind, sprouts are a personal favorite for wintertime garden blues.  I love to grow a few veggies over summer, but sprouts grow anytime and with so little effort.  If you think about it, a sprout is that first baby plant, still super nutrient rich from being a seed.  That seed was created specifically to feed a tiny plant until it was big enough to feed itself.  The seed is stuffed with antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and proteins that are locked away, and sprouting makes those nutrients more accessible for humans, or more bioavailable.

Salad mix sprouts with baby greens, pea shoots, hummus and falafel.

Alfalfa sprouts are a contentious topic.  The FDA and CDC have previously recommended not buying or consuming alfalfa sprouts due to contamination based illnesses.  Salmonella and E. coli have both been found in alfalfa sprouts, not nearly as widespread as egg based outbreaks, however it has happened.  Personally, I do grow my own, BUT this is an individual choice each person would need to make.  I feel I am overall in good health and the risk of illness from either bacteria is higher in the very young and elderly or others with compromised immune systems.

Aside from alfalfa, the most common sprouts are cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, kale, cabbage, and more.  Watercress, radish, mustard, and wasabi are also in the cruciferous, or brassica, family and offer strong flavors that add a great zing.  I touched on the benefits in my slaw article, but sprouts are even higher in antioxidants than the full-grown plants.  Glucoraphanin is one of the phytochemicals found in cruciferous sprouts, particularly broccoli, and when eaten, is converted to sulforaphane.  Curiously, growing broccoli sprouts with radish, rocket, or rape sprouts seems to increase the bioavailable sulforaphane content by approximately double!1   Sulforaphane appears to be nearly a one-stop-shop for antioxidant needs.  After 8 weeks of consuming 70 grams of broccoli sprouts daily, participants’ stomach linings showed improved protection against H. pylori damage, one of the leading causes for stomach ulcers.2 Based on a breast cancer cell study by Li et al.3, Dr Michael Greger, of, estimated a quarter of a cup of broccoli sprouts would show reduction in cancer cell size.  The lowest dose in the study showed vast improvement, but the improvements were increased with higher doses, which Dr Greger calculated at ½ cup and 1 ¼ cups of broccoli sprouts daily.  Learn more here,  Sulforaphane is an activator of antioxidant signaling within the body, and through that effect, may counter the inflammation and damage related to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.   In an integrated model, by reducing oxidative stress, insulin resistance can be improved, gut health improved, mitochondrial function improved, and obesity driven inflammation reduced, thereby improving the previous three even further.4

Within cruciferous sprouts are other phytochemicals that further promote health such as quercetin and indole-3-carbinol.  There is a concise table here if you would like a little more information:  

Peanut tofu with mung bean sprouts, broccolini, and rice noodles.

Perhaps a surprise to some, pulses can also be sprouted.  You have likely had sprouted mung beans in Asian food, perhaps on top of Pad Thai? Lentils, chickpeas, and greens peas are also common options, though personally I haven’t had much luck with chickpeas for some unknown reason.  Sprouting can shift the nutrient content.  Peas and chickpeas both showed increases in protein after sprouting, however the antioxidant capacity went down.  Curiously, things like soluble and insoluble fiber, sugars, and mineral levels shifted in different directions between the two pulses.6  Lentils also show an increase in protein availability after sprouting, and while the iron content seemed to drop, it was more bioavailable, leading to improved absorption even with less in the food!  Zinc and manganese also increase with sprouting for some types of lentils.7  I have found peas to be a sweet treat in a salad, with lentils largely blending into the savory mix of flavors.

Other things can be sprouted, such as sunflower seeds, chia seeds, and flax seeds, however they can prove more difficult to sprout.  Some plants, such as sunflower, lettuces, beets, arugula, or even herbs like basil, lend themselves more to microgreens.  This is the process of planting the seeds into soil or other medium and harvesting the plant above the soil, not consuming the root.  This can also be done with many of the things that are sprouted, radishes, pak choy, kale, or cabbage.  I was introduced to pea shoots by our local organic farm stand and I’ve found them delicious.  Many pea types can be planted for harvesting shoots, though harvesting shoots can impede the eventual growth of peas depending on your local climate and season.  I only just started trying to grow microgreens, so no knowledge to share as of yet.

I did recently pick up a new sprouting system from Botanical Interests (this is NOT SPONSORED).  I had previously worked with a sprouting lid or paper towel with a rubber band on a glass or jar.  (It really is that easy if you want to try it out, seeds into glass, paper towel over the top with a rubber band to hold it in place, angle so that excess water runs out of the glass and doesn’t rot the seeds.)  This new sprouter was quite different, and I was concerned with the roots growing through the bottom but they came out with nearly no effort when I harvested.  Most importantly, my rate of sprouting was far higher with this system!  I end up with lush carpets of sprouts and far fewer unsprouted seeds, see the photo at the beginning of the article.  I’ve had luck with pea and lentil sprouts as well.

For safety, please try to source reputable seeds and this article does a great job highlighting the important tips for keeping the sprouts healthy.   A final note, if you see colored fuzz, smell something strange, or anything is mushy, compost or throw away and start fresh with sanitized and well washed equipment.

1. Liang, H., Wei, Y., Li, R., Cheng, L., Yuan, Q., & Zheng, F. (2018). Intensifying sulforaphane formation in broccoli sprouts by using other cruciferous sprouts additions. Food science and biotechnology, 27(4), 957–962.

2. Yanaka, A., Fahey, J. W., Fukumoto, A., Nakayama, M., Inoue, S., Zhang, S., Tauchi, M., Suzuki, H., Hyodo, I., & Yamamoto, M. (2009). Dietary sulforaphane-rich broccoli sprouts reduce colonization and attenuate gastritis in Helicobacter pylori-infected mice and humans. Cancer prevention research (Philadelphia, Pa.), 2(4), 353–360.  

3. Li, Y., Zhang, T., Korkaya, H., Liu, S., Lee, H. F., Newman, B., Yu, Y., Clouthier, S. G., Schwartz, S. J., Wicha, M. S., & Sun, D. (2010). Sulforaphane, a dietary component of broccoli/broccoli sprouts, inhibits breast cancer stem cells. Clinical cancer research : an official journal of the American Association for Cancer Research, 16(9), 2580–2590.

4. Xu, L., Nagata, N., & Ota, T. (2019). Impact of Glucoraphanin-Mediated Activation of Nrf2 on Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease with a Focus on Mitochondrial Dysfunction. International journal of molecular sciences, 20(23), 5920.

5. Abellán, Á., Domínguez-Perles, R., Moreno, D. A., & García-Viguera, C. (2019). Sorting out the Value of Cruciferous Sprouts as Sources of Bioactive Compounds for Nutrition and Health. Nutrients, 11(2), 429.

6. Erba, D., Angelino, D., Marti, A., Manini, F., Faoro, F., Morreale, F., Pellegrini, N., & Casiraghi, M. C. (2019). Effect of sprouting on nutritional quality of pulses. International journal of food sciences and nutrition, 70(1), 30–40.

7. S Santos, C., Silva, B., M P Valente, L., Gruber, S., & W Vasconcelos, M. (2020). The Effect of Sprouting in Lentil (Lens culinaris) Nutritional and Microbiological Profile. Foods (Basel, Switzerland), 9(4), 400.

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