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Should You Sprout Your Food?

What to know about sprouting grains, nuts, and legumes.
By Tammy Worth
WebMD Feature

Sprouts are making a comeback, and not just at the salad bar.

They're packed with nutrients and are easy to digest. Some people are getting in on the trend, sprouting their grains, nuts, and beans.

Should you join in? Find out what's involved.

What Is Sprouting?

Seeds sprout after a few days in a warm, moist setting. It usually takes 3 to 7 days, depending upon the conditions and kind of seeds being used.

You've probably heard of bean sprouts. But many foods can be sprouted, including:

  • Grains, such as barley, wheat, and spelt
  • Legumes, such as lentils, peas, and pinto, kidney, and lima beans
  • Radish and broccoli seeds

Some people also sprout nuts, including almonds, cashews, walnuts, and peanuts.

Sprouting Chemistry

The sprouting process may make it easier for a body to absorb nutrients including iron, zinc, and vitamin C, says dietitian Reem Jabr, a nutrition therapist in the Boston area.

Another possible perk: Broccoli sprouts might help prevent cancer. They have more natural chemicals called glucosinolates than regular broccoli. Glucosinolates have shown promise against bladder cancer in lab tests on animals. It's not yet clear if the same is true for people, but "there is a lot of interest" in that, says Steve Schwartz, PhD, an Ohio State University food science professor, who has studied broccoli sprouts.

Digestion Benefit

Sprouting breaks down a seed. That means less work for your digestive system, says Elisabetta Politi, RD, nutrition director at the Duke Diet & Fitness Center in Durham, NC.

"It would be a good choice for someone with a sensitive gut," she says. "For people with problems digesting certain foods, sprouted germs might seem better for them, and they are less allergenic to people with grain protein sensitivities."

This was the case for Avery Pittman of Vermont. In high school, Pittman took methacycline for acne, which she says led to a lot of "gastrointestinal issues." Having tried various kinds of diets, she says that eating sprouts helps her prevent stomach problems.

Pittman buys mung beans (a small, greenish legume) and lentils in bulk and sprouts them herself. She eats them in salads and tries to eat them daily.

"They are pretty energizing, and I enjoy the taste of them," she says. "I feel better when I eat them. I know some foods cause me to have stomachaches, but these prevent it."

Safe Sprouting

Sprouts, like any produce that you eat raw, carry a risk of contamination with salmonella, E. coli, listeria, or other bacteria.

The warm, humid conditions they need are part of the problem. Bacteria thrive in those conditions, too.

For food safety, the FDA offers this advice:

  • Refrigerate sprouts you buy.
  • Don't eat raw sprouts. Cook them thoroughly before eating.
  • Children, seniors, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems should not eat raw sprouts.

Sprouting at home? Buy seeds from a certified supplier, and sterilize the seeds and container before sprouting. Also, use your nose. Sprouts should smell clean. When in doubt, throw them out.

Reviewed on February 25, 2014

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