Don’t doubt sprouts

Crunch on some shoots and maximize your meal’s nutrition

Graceful, ethereal—sprouts are as nutritious as they are elegant up close.

Graceful, ethereal—sprouts are as nutritious as they are elegant up close.

The whimsical sprout comes in many guises. It shoots up from crunchy legumes, such as lentils, soy and chickpeas; whole grains such as sweet quinoa and wheat berries, and vegetable seeds, including alfalfa, broccoli and biting radish. Food bloggers, nutrition experts and savvy chefs are increasingly trumpeting the nutritional density and culinary potential of these “baby” plants.

When a seed comes in contact with moisture, it begins to germinate, or sprout. During this process, vitamin, mineral and protein levels increase substantially over those found in the original seed or mature plant of the same name.

Erin Palinski, a registered dietitian and fitness trainer, says this is when “the plant is at its nutritional peak.”

The array of intensified compounds includes vitamins A, B12, folate and C; minerals such as phosphorus, calcium, iron and magnesium; essential fatty acids; fiber; and various enzymes and antioxidants.

Case in point: broccoli sprouts. According to researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, spicy broccoli sprouts contain up to 100 times more sulforaphane than mature broccoli.

“Sulforaphane is a naturally occurring phytochemical that enhances the cancer-protective capacity of cells,” Palinski said.

Sprouted lentils have four times more vitamin C than their unsprouted mates. Plus, when eaten shortly after sprouting, there is no loss of nutrients that occurs when fruits and vegetables sit for long periods of time on trucks, in warehouses and on grocer shelves.

On top of a myriad of nutritional benefits, organic sprouts are very economical. Growing several times their initial weight, they can be reared anywhere, during any season and, unlike their grown-up brethren, can go from seed to salad with virtually no environmental impact in just a few days.

Good for much more than sandwich fillers, sprouts can gussy up curries, sushi, soups, dips, scrambled eggs, stir-fries and even baked goods. Eating a variety is the best way to take advantage of all their unique flavors and health benefits.

Sprouting at home is a garden that can be cultivated in January or July, in Alaska or Florida. Sprouting indoors is as easy as one, two, drain. No green thumb required. Raw food chef Tina Jo Stephens, host of the online Splendor in the Raw, explains how to get it right.

First, you’ll need a wide-mouth jar, preferably about a half-gallon, a porous nonmetal screen (available at most hardware stores), a rubber band and seeds sold specifically for sprouting.

How to do it? One: Pour 2 tablespoons of smaller seeds, such as broccoli and mustard, or up to a half-cup of larger seeds like garbanzo and lentils, into a jar, cover with water and soak for 6 to 8 hours. Two: Secure porous lid to the top of the jar with rubber band. Three: Drain the water, rinse and drain again with fresh water. Four: Invert jar and prop at a 45-degree angle in a bowl to catch the liquid and encourage air circulation. Five: Keep the seeds in a warm, dark place for the first three days. Six: On the fourth day, place them in diffused or indirect sunlight to develop chlorophyll and begin to green. Seven: When the sprouts are ready to harvest, rinse well and wash off as many hulls as possible, then refrigerate for up to one week.

A quick safety note: To minimize contamination risk, purchase seeds and mature sprouts from companies that test for pathogens and are dedicated solely to sprouting and not livestock production as well. As long as you begin with uncontaminated seeds, use clean jars and water and refrigerate the sprouts, the risk of growing illness-inducing pathogens is minimal.