Remember back in elementary school when you placed a bean in a cup with a wet paper towel, and after a few days, a tiny shoot would start to break free from its encased world? What we didn’t know then was we were growing nutritional powerhouses.
Why sprouted foods might be better for you
When you think about it, many of the foods we eat start off as sprouts. The way that a seed cracks open and sends a root or a stalk upward is sprouting, and it’s a growth stage that is unique to plants. These sprouts are often more concentrated in certain nutrients than their adult counterparts. Partly because when that new sprout emerges, it carries some of the starches from the seed, grain, legume or nut, and that gives it a nutritional boost, usually in the proportion of protein and fiber it has.
Basically, when you’re eating sprouted foods, you’re getting the most beneficial nutrition out of the plant.
For instance, when you eat sprouts, you increase enzymes — called protease, proteinase or peptidase — which help with digestion. The enzymes break the long chain-like molecules of proteins and carbohydrates into shorter fragments and eventually into their components, thus making these molecules easier for your body to digest. Sure, our bodies make enzymes that help us digest foods, but this ability may decrease as we age. That’s why eating foods like sprouts that contain digestive enzymes, may help our bodies become more efficient at digesting the foods we eat.
All of this means that sprouts have a lower glycemic index rating than their non-sprouted counterparts, and the lower the better, as the glycemic index measures how much a food will raise your blood-sugar levels. In a Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism study, sprouted-grain breads triggered a lower blood sugar response and greater influx of the satiety hormone, GLP-1, in the body, compared to both white and whole-grain breads with the same carbohydrate content.
“Sprouts can also add nutrients like folate, vitamin C and protein and have concentrated sources of antioxidants and phytonutrients that enhance our health,” says Kory DeAngelo, MS, RD, the clinical nutrition supervisor at Bastyr Center for Natural Health in Seattle. A good example of this is that sprouted rye increases its folate content up to 3.8-fold, according to research in The Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry. While an article in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition looked into the bioavailability of the nutrients and found that sprouting is a good way to get more iron and beta-carotene from vegetables.
The best sprouts to choose
You have a lot of options when it comes to sprouting: black beans, buckwheat, mung beans, groats, lentils, quinoa, wild rice, wheat berries, millet, barley, amaranth, kamut, radish seeds, alfalfa, adzuki beans and chickpeas.
“All sprouts contain phytonutrients that enhance our health, but broccoli sprouts have been extensively studied for their sulphurophane content, which has shown to have a beneficial effect on cancer cells and detoxification. Also, raw broccoli sprouts seem to be safer to eat than alfalfa or clover sprouts,” DeAngelo says. What’s more: Broccoli sprouts may help ward off the effects of air pollution.
When 300 Chinese men and women living in one of the most polluted areas in the country were given a half cup of a broccoli sprout beverage, they excreted higher levels of benzene, a known human carcinogen, and acrolein, a lung irritant. Specifically, they did so at a rate of 61 and 23 percent more, respectively, compared to when they were not drinking the broccoli sprout beverage. This means that they peed out the pollution! Researchers reported in Cancer Prevention Research that the plant compound sulforaphane—found in broccoli sprouts—helps the body’s cells adapt to and survive environmental toxins. Unfortunately, this doesn’t apply to the toxins, such as pesticide residue, that are in some fruits and vegetables.
Sprouts may sprout bacteria, too
Perhaps you heard about the foodborne illness outbreaks linked to sprouts? Between 1996 and 2014, there were more than 40 reported. “For most outbreaks, the source of contamination appears to have been the seed. Even if the seed is contaminated, pathogen levels are typically very low, so contamination can easily be missed depending on the nature of the seed-testing program,” says Trevor V. Suslow, PhD, extension research specialist of preharvest to postharvest produce safety in the department of plant science at University of California, Davis. “The best conditions for sprouting are also ideal for multiplication of bacteria if they happen to be present on the seed. Even if the seeds are only lightly contaminated, Salmonella and E. coli levels can increase to millions of cells per serving during the sprouting process.”
Raw food advocates may disagree, but because of this risk of foodborne illness, the FDA recommends that sprouts should not be eaten raw. “If you have a weakened immune system, are pregnant, a child or elderly, it is recommended to not consume sprouts,” says DeAngelo. “If you have a healthy immune system and you decide to include sprouts in your diet, make sure the sprouts are fresh and rinse them well with filtered water. Use refrigerated sprouts by the sell-by date, and do not eat if they are discolored or slimy.”
The timeline aspect for consumption may not just keep your sprouts free from harmful bacteria, but it may also help you get the most from your sprouts. Consuming the sprouts within five days of initial sprouting may offer the most nutritional benefits, according to research published in Food Chemistry that examined green pea, lentil and young mung bean sprouts.
How to do sprouting at home
If you choose to sprout yourself, you can lower your risk of breeding bacteria with these guidelines from the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, which Dr. Suslow co-authored.
Start by buying certified pathogen-free seed, such as those from Burpee Seed Co. and Sprout People. Make sure to specifically request pathogen-free certification, since seeds tend not to be marketed as such. Certified organic sprout seed is available from several sources, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the seed is pathogen-free, that it has been tested for pathogens, or that it poses a higher risk of illness.
Heat your seeds on the stove for five minutes in a solution of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide, preheated to 140 degrees. Place the seeds in a small mesh strainer and lower into the solution. Swirl at one-minute intervals to provide uniform treatment.
Rinse the seeds in running tap water for one minute, and place them in a sanitized sprouting container. To sanitize the jar, soak in 3⁄4 cup of bleach per gallon of water for at least five minutes, then rinse it with clean water.
Fill the sprouting container with enough water that it covers the seeds, plus one inch. Skim off and throw away any floating seeds and debris, as this is where many of the contaminants are. Cover with either a mesh top or cheesecloth.
Place the container away from areas of food preparation, pets, and busy areas of the house. Depending on what you are sprouting, the soaking times will vary. When the time is finished, drain the water, then cover with fresh water, shake, drain and repeat. Rinse and drain twice daily until the food is done sprouting—usually in four days.
Enjoy within five days of sprouting. Though it may impact sprouts’ nutrient content, the FDA’s guidelines to cook the sprouts before eating them are intended to prevent illness and kill any bacteria that may have snuck in during the sprouting process.