Sprouts have been a staple of Chinese cuisine for more than five millennia, and they’ve recently become popular in the West as well. While sprouts may all look similar, they are actually a diverse collection of different foods. It’s possible to find bean sprouts, grain sprouts, and salad sprouts in farmers' markets, health food stores, and grocery stores around the country.
Sprouts are very young plants that are harvested just a few days after they germinate. These greens are renowned for their health benefits, and many people claim that they can help with a number of health problems. While science supports some of these benefits of eating sprouts, there is still research to be done.
A one-cup serving of fresh alfalfa sprouts contains:
- Calories: 8
- Protein: 1 gram
- Fat: Less than 1 gram
- Carbohydrates: 1 gram
- Fiber: 1 gram
- Sugar: Less than 1 gram
Sprouts are an excellent source of:
Sprouts are also a great source of Vitamin K. This vitamin is critical to healthy bone growth, proper blood clotting, and many other bodily functions.
Potential Health Benefits of Sprouts
Sprouts are rich in a number of important nutrients. While the specific ratio of nutrients varies depending on the type of sprout, they generally contain high levels of folate, magnesium, phosphorus, and vitamin K. In fact, they have higher amounts of these nutrients than fully-grown versions of the same plants.
Furthermore, food made from sprouts, such as sprouted tofu or soy milk, has more protein and less fat than other forms of these foods.
While sprouts provide many nutritional benefits, research also points to the following potential health benefits to eating sprouts:
People with diabetes may find that eating sprouts helps them control their blood sugar levels more effectively. Studies suggest that sprouts can lower blood glucose levels. This may be a result of two separate processes.
First, compared to unsprouted seeds and grains, sprouts have lower levels of carbohydrates, which may help control insulin levels. This is combined with the presence of enzymes in the sprouts, which in turn affects how the body breaks down carbohydrates. However, more studies need to be done in order to define the true cause of this effect.
Eating sprouts may improve your digestive health. According to many studies, sprouting a seed significantly increases the amount of fiber it contains. Much of this fiber is “insoluble” fiber, which means it doesn’t dissolve in your stomach. Instead, it acts as a prebiotic and feeds the “good” bacteria in your intestines. These bacteria are important for maintaining a stable, healthy digestive system, and can help reduce symptoms like bloating and gas.
Adding sprouts to your diet also may have benefits for the health of your heart. Several studies have shown that consuming sprouts can lower cholesterol levels in people with diabetes or obesity. One study showed an increase in “good” HDL cholesterol as well as a drop in triglycerides and “bad” LDL cholesterol. Lower levels of cholesterol are connected to a lower risk of heart disease and atherosclerosis.
Potential Risks of Sprouts
Just because sprouts are nutritious doesn’t mean that they are a risk-free food. Consider the following before eating sprouts:
Sprouts are most often consumed raw or only lightly cooked because of their delicate nature. As with most raw foods, this makes sprouts a potential vector for foodborne illnesses, such as those caused by E. coli.
However, sprouts are even more vulnerable than other types of food. The warm, wet conditions that are required to sprout seeds are also the perfect conditions to grow dangerous bacteria. As a result, the FDA has connected 48 individual outbreaks of foodborne illnesses to raw or lightly cooked sprouts since 1996.
You can avoid the risk of food poisoning by taking a few precautions:
- Never buy or eat slimy or smelly sprouts
- Keep sprouts chilled below 48 degrees at all times
- Take extreme caution with sanitization if attempting to make sprouts at home
- Rinse sprouts before consumption
- Always wash your hands before handling sprouts