Broccoli microgreens and sprouts are tiny, but they are superstars in the nutrition world. In fact, researchers from the University of Maryland call them “an exciting new food for the 21st century” (Choe, 2018).
This blog will cover all aspects of sprouts and microgreens including nutrition, with a special focus on broccoli microgreens. You can read the post from top to bottom, or navigate using this Table of Contents.
This post should not be construed as medical advice. Consult your registered dietitian or health professional before changing your diet. Sprouts and microgreens are not recommended for young children, pregnant women, older adults or those with a compromised immune system due to the risk of bacterial contamination (Health Canada, 2013).
Sprouts vs Microgreens
Sprouts are germinated seeds, grown without soil usually just with moisture. They are younger and smaller plants than microgreens and are harvested after about 4-6 days. You are consuming the seed and the root (sometime called rootlet) when you eat them. They are eaten before the cotyledons (first baby leaves) emerge.
Microgreens are usually grown in trays with soil but can also be grown hydroponically (in water) and are grown either until just the baby leaves (cotyledons) are present or the cotyledons and true leaves (it seems there is not a standardized agreed-upon definition for microgreens) (Wojdylo, 2020 and Renna, 2020).
You cut the greens to harvest them, and the root and seed pod remain under the soil. The soil and roots are generally composted after harvest. They grow for about 1-3 weeks (7-21 days) and are usually grown under artificial lights to use photosynthesis to green up the leaves and provide energy for the plant.
When tested, microgreens are higher in chlorophyll and carotenoids (healthy pigments) than spouts (Wojdylo, 2020). That is to be expected as microgreens have a longer growing time and are exposed to light which produces chlorophyll as part of photosynthesis.
Baby Greens are plants that are more developed than microgreens and more closely resemble the adult plant, just smaller and more tender. Popular choices are baby spinach and baby arugula. They are generally 15-40 days old and about 2-4″ tall (Choe, 2018).
Microgreens vs Mature Plants
When comparing the nutrition of microgreens to the mature plant, the microgreens have less sugar. This comparison was done with Dijon mustard, opal basil, pepper cress and red amaranth microgreens. The microgreens had 1.7-10.3 grams of sugar per kg of greens. Compare this to the mature plants which had 17-44 grams of sugar per kg (Choe, 2018).
When comparing the mineral content of select microgreens to mature vegetables, the microgreens were higher in minerals for all except adult kale which had the same amount of minerals (Choe, 2018).
Types of Microgreens
Microgreens can be grown from a variety of vegetables, grains and even micro herbs and each has a distinct colour, flavour and appearance. The seeds chosen for this are the ones that germinate quickly and grow quickly. This list of microgreens will give you some idea about the large variety you can grow and enjoy.
The small pale grains from South America are known for their fibre and protein content. When compared to kale, radish, beet and pea microgreens, amaranth was the highest in carotenoids – a group of plant pigments that are known to be helpful against cancer (Wojdylo, 2020).
Arugula is known to be high in nitrate which, unlike the nitrates used in processed meats as a preservative, the nitrates found in vegetables are beneficial for blood vessels and oxygen transport (Lidder, 2013). In fact, arugula and other nitrate rich vegetables are often promoted for athletes to improve cardio performance.
Both green basil and opal basil microgreens had robust amounts of beta-carotene, lutein and violaxanthin (all important phytonutrient pigments) with green basil having more than opal basil (Xiao, 2012).
These are certainly beautiful with their bright pink stems and reddish green leaf buds. Like arugula, beets are also known to be high in nitrates (Lidder, 2013). In general, green or bright red coloured microgreens contain a greater concentration of phylloquinone – also known as vitamin K (Choe, 2018).
As far as nutrition goes, the broccoli microgreen gets a lot of attention (more on that below). As well as being high in sulforaphane they are also high in vitamin A and vitamin C.
The Agricultural Research Service, of the USDA has studied buckwheat microgreens and found that they were high in antioxidants, and other important phytonutrients (flavonoids, carotenoids) and vitamin E (USDA, 2014). Despite its name, buckwheat is not related to wheat, in fact, it’s botanically related to rhubarb. Its name comes from the fact that its seeds look like the nut from a beech tree and it was originally called “beech wheat”. Buckwheat grain is used to make soba noodles and kasha.
Like broccoli and kale, cabbage is a distinguished member of the cruciferous (mustard) family. All of these cruciferous contain the important enzyme myrosinase that is so important for producing beneficial plant compounds after the vegetable is cut or chewed.
Chia seeds are very popular right now. They can be added as is to yogurt or cereals, or soaked overnight to make a chia pudding, or planted to grown chia microgreens.
Cilantro is an herb that people love or hate. While some of this might be preference, some individuals have a variation in an olfactory-receptor gene which makes cilantro taste like soap (Petruzzello, 2020). While cilantro sprouts and microgreens have less of that cilantro flavour, you may still notice it. These can also be called coriander microgreens. The green herb of this plant is cilantro and the seeds that come at the top are coriander. They are both used as seasoning. Cilantro microgreens has three times as much beta-carotene as mature cilantro and the highest amount of lutein, a plant pigment known to protect the eyes from UV damage (Choe, 2018).
In an analysis comparing the bioavailability of nutrients in sprouts, researchers simulated human digestion to see how many nutrients could actually be absorbed by the body after eating. Kale was found to have the highest level of vitamin C compared to broccoli, mustard and radish microgreens (de la Fuente, 2019).
When compared to broccoli, kale, and radish microgreens, mustard microgreens are highest in beta carotene, an important anti-oxidant (de la Fuente, 2019). Mustard greens or Brassica juncea are less well known but important part of the cruciferous plant family.
If the plant is allowed to grow enough to seed then those seeds can be used to make brown mustard or Dijon mustard (as opposed to yellow mustard which comes from a plant called Sinapis alba). Brown mustard is spicier than yellow mustard and is consumed more in Europe than N. America (Saskmustard.com).
These are baby spring onions, also known as green onions (not to be confused with shallots). You won’t cry when you harvest these, and they can be used to replace chives or the greens from spring onions in your recipes. Onion microgreens, are among some of the slower ones to develop, taking 15-21 days.
In a study comparing the nutritional constituents of 25 different microgreens, golden pea shoots were included in the analysis. Golden pea shoots are grown without light had therefore had much lower vitamin and carotenoid pigments than pea microgreens grown under light. The authors of this study suggest that light plays an important role on the nutritional values during growth (Xiao, 2012).
In a comparison of 25 different microgreens, daikon radish microgreens had the highest level of vitamin E, a fat soluble vitamin known for its role in immune health (Choe, 2018).
Red Cabbage Microgreens
Red cabbage has the highest level of vitamin C compared to 24 other microgreens and six times higher than mature red cabbage. In addition, red cabbage microgreens have more polyphenols (important plant nutrients) than mature red cabbage (Choe, 2018).
This is one of the more popular microgreens and I’ve seen this one on several restaurant menus. If you are growing sunflower microgreens, don’t use bird seeds, instead use black oil sunflower seeds that are intending for growing, not bird food. This reduces the risk of contamination as seeds meant for humans are tested for pathogens (ReactGreen, 2020).
Both green spinach and magenta spinach can be grown as microgreens. In a study that compared the nutrition of 25 different microgreens, magenta spinach was tested, although, not a top ranked in any of the nutrients studied it was on par with the other Microgreens analyzed (Xiao, 2012).
Sprout and Microgreen Nutrition
Sprouts and microgreens contain higher levels of functional compounds including phenolics, flavonoids, pigments, vitamins and minerals (Le, 2020). These beneficial compounds have been shown to reduce inflammation as well as risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, obesity, insulin resistance and diabetes.
There is even some evidence that sprouts and microgreens can help to ensure a healthy gut microbiome (Choe, 2018). They are considered so beneficial for our health, they are referred to as ‘functional nutrition‘ (Le, 2020).
How to Store Broccoli Sprouts
You can refrigerate sprouts, but make sure they have been dried, either with a salad spinner or by letting them sit on an absorbent towel. You can store them in a produce bag, plastic bag or storage container.
Which Sprouts or Microgreens Are Best?
Researchers in Poland did a detailed analysis and comparison of a 13 different sprouts and microgreens. After all of their analysis, they concluded that broccoli, radish and lentil sprouts and radish, amaranth and kale microgreens get their vote for superfoods (although they did not test broccoli microgreens, only sprouts) (Wojdylo, 2020).
Broccoli Microgreens Nutrition
There are many dietitians that will argue that there is no such thing as a ‘superfood’ but I’m not one of them. My interpretation of the research is that some foods really are pretty special, and broccoli is one of those that is a real stand-out, dare I say superfood.
Broccoli, known by its botanical name as Brassica oleracea L var. Italaica gets a lot of attention in the scientific literature. In research published in 2020, researchers from India call broccoli “green chemoprevention” (Nandini, 2020). Broccoli has got a lot going for it, including;
- Vitamin C
Glucosinates are family of plant compounds that are a store house for other compounds, that when combined form powerful anti-cancer agents. One of these important agents is sulforaphane. The Sulforaphane does not exist in the broccoli, but is made once you bite or cut the broccoli. The shearing of the broccoli allows compounds that were inside cell membranes to come in contact with each other. This is what that reaction looks like:
Glucoraphanin + myrosinase enzyme = sulforaphane
This quote from cancer researchers shows just how important it is;
“Sulforaphane is one of the powerful anticarcinogenic substances which work by increasing the levels of enzymes in the liver, which counteract the carcinogenic effects of chemicals in the food and environment.” (Nandini, 2020)
The weak link in this chemical reaction is the myrosinase enzyme which is very sensitive to heat.
Broccoli Sprouts vs Broccoli
The sulforaphane content is much higher in broccoli sprouts and microgreens compared to a mature head of broccoli.
To Maximize the Cancer-Fighting Potential of Broccoli
The get the most out of your broccoli, there are a few things to keep in mind;
- Broccoli should be fresh
- Light steaming or microwaving is better than boiling
- Consume broccoli along with mustard seed powder, daikon radish, wasabi, arugula or coleslaw
- Choose sprouts over supplements, as many supplements lack the myrosinase enzyme
Broccoli sprouts are said to be 20-50 times more effective at cancer protection than mature broccoli. Broccoli seedlings, which could include sprouts and microgreens possess various biological properties including antioxidant, anticancer, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, anti-obesity and antidiabetic activities (Le, 2020).
Purple Broccoli Sprouts
In addition to our well known green broccoli, there is a purple version. These seeds can be grown into sprouts and microgreens. The purple colour comes from a pigment called anthocyanin. Growing broccoli microgreens is the same process as the growing the other microgreens.
Can I Eat too Much Broccoli?
Like everything else, including water…yes, it’s possible to eat too much broccoli or too many broccoli microgreens or sprouts. One concern with overconsumption is that broccoli is goitrogenic – meaning that in can alter the uptake of iodine and reduce the functioning of the thyroid gland and lead to hypothyroidism.
Also, other issues have been reported such as GI distress such as stomach irritation, diarrhea, abdominal pain or flatulence (Nandini, 2020). But the benefits outweigh the risks when eaten in typical quantities.
Broccoli Sprouts Powder
Broccoli sprouts powder is made from broccoli sprouts that have been freeze dried and ground to a fine powder. Like other nutritional supplements, broccoli sprouts powder is high antioxidant.
Research into other antioxidants, namely vitamins C, E, beta-carotene, selenium and zinc in various combinations, have shown that the supplements have either no effect on type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease or cancer or led to worsening of the blood results (Houghton, 2019).
But, unlike other anti-oxidant supplements, broccoli sprouts powder and more accurately sulforaphane the active phytonutrient in broccoli sprouts is showing encouraging results. The reason for this is that sulforaphane can activate a factor inside the cells called Nrf2 (nuclear factor erythroid-2) which regulates the cells resistance to oxidative stress.
When Nrf2 is activated a chain reaction ensues resulting in improved cellular defence. According to researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia broccoli sulforaphane is the most potent naturally occurring phytonutrient Nrf2 inducer known and has the added benefit of being highly bioavailable (Houghton, 2019).
The recommended daily dose is 20-40 mg per day but should be a myrosinase-active broccoli sprout supplement. In addition to being an effective anti-oxidant, sulforaphane is an anti-inflammatory, can reduce the growth of H.pylori – a bacteria responsible for stomach ulcers (and stomach cancer risk). Despite all of these benefits, researchers are still recommending patience so that more larger scale clinical trials can be completed before they wholeheartedly recommend broccoli sprouts powder to the public (Houghton, 2019).
If you do decide this is something you want to supplement, you need to know that natural health products are unregulated. If supplementing, it is best to choose a brand that tests the amount of myrosinase enzyme as well as the amount of glucoraphanin and look for the natural health products (NHP) number of the bottle. Of course discussing this with your doctor or pharmacist is always recommended.
Environmental Benefits of Microgreens
Microgreens take only 10 to 14 days and 93-95% less time and 158-236 times less water compared to mature broccoli to have equivalent nutrients. An added benefit is that they do not need fertilizers or pesticides (Choe, 2018).
Microgreens are ideal for indoor growing and as such don’t need herbicides, pesticides and are not at the mercy of the weather or geographical location. They do best in 60-75 degrees F and you can sow the seeds thickly, about 10-15 grams of seeds per 12’x20′ growing tray (Sanchez, 2020).
You should purchase seeds that are meant for sprouting or microgreen growing as opposed to seeds for sowing in the garden outside to grow mature plants. The reason from buying these are twofold; firstly you need a large quantity of seeds when growing microgreens or sprouts – more than is contained in the seed envelopes from the garden centre.
Secondly, you want seeds that are prepared in a safe way – to reduce the potential for e-coli, salmonella or listeria. You should also avoid pesticide treated seeds as the seed coat can persist on the seeds and can be eaten. Choosing organic seeds is one way to avoid using treated seeds (Sanchez, 2020).
Best Soil for Microgreens
Unlike sprouts, which just need a clean container, some type of filter and water, microgreens are grown in soil and sometimes water (called hydroponics) or a growing mat. Soilless media, vermiculite and seeding mats make are good choices for growing microgreens (Sanchez, 2020). You should use new planting media each time you sow seeds to prevent disease spread.
Sprout and Microgreen Precautions
While nutrition superstars, there are some drawbacks to microgreens and sprouts. They don’t store very well and there have been outbreaks and food recalls.
According to Health Canada sprouts and microgreens can sometimes be contaminated with E.coli, salmonella or listeria which can sometimes lead to food poisoning. They recommend you avoid eating spouts raw or undercooked. In addition, you need to respect the best before date and keep refrigerated.
The high humidity and warmth required for sprouts to grow are ideal conditions for pathogenic bacteria (FDA, 2019). But, because microgreens are not produced under the same high humidity conditions as sprouts, they are less likely to harbor E. coli and production and sales are less regulated. To keep yourself safe, use clean hands, clean containers and clean seeds (Montana Department of Ag, 2013).
If you are growing your own sprouts and microgreens, there are guidelines to help reduce the risk of contamination including (OMAFRA, 2016);
- Use sanitized containers for growing
- Store your seeds to prevent contamination
- Keep germinating spouts cool
According to natural medicines database, broccoli sprouts are considered safe for consumption but should be grown in accordance with the US food and drug Administration (FDA).
For more information on beneficial cancer fighting nutrients, read my blogs on;
Broccoli Microgreens References
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