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Microgreens Versus Sprouts

Microgreen Facts

Microgreens (micro greens) are a tiny form of edible greens produced from the seeds of vegetables, herbs or other plants. They range in size from one to two inches long, including the stem and leaves. Microgreens can have surprisingly intense flavors considering their small size, though not as strong as mature greens and herbs.

Microgreens are used as a garnish and flavor accent primarily in fine dining restaurants. These restaurants place a strong emphasis on both the creative presentation and flavor of their dishes. Microgreens’ delicate, fresh appearance adds beauty and dimension combined with a range of distinct flavor elements.

Dubbed one of 2008’s culinary buzzwords by National Public Radio, microgreens are a popular food trend. Used by chefs to stimulate and enhance the dining experience, microgreens infuse taste and innovation into their culinary creations.

The National Restaurant Association released its list of top food and beverage trends for 2009. The list, comprised of survey results from over 1600 chefs, shows microgreens at number 5 in the produce category.


Microgreens have been produced in the United States since about the mid 1990’s beginning in Southern California. Initially, there were very few varieties offered. The basic types; Arugula, Basil, Beets, kale, Cilantro and a mixture called Rainbow Mix. They are now being grown in most areas of the country with an increasing number of varieties being produced.

A form of microgreens sold in a specialized growing medium; cellulose (paper) pulp has been produced in Europe since about 2002.

Microgreens Versus Sprouts

Microgreens are not the same as sprouts. Some articles about microgreens characterize them as being very much the same as sprouts. There are several important differences. Understanding the different production methods of each can help clear up any confusion between them.

Sprouts are simply germinated seeds. What is eaten consists of the seed, root, stem and pale underdeveloped leaves. the FDA seeks to regulate all businesses that produce sprouts due to numerous outbreaks of food poisoning. Salmonella and Escherichia coli 0157:H7 have been the major causes of sprout-associated illness outbreaks. Commercial sprout processors must follow rigorous FDA Guidelines for production that include multiple laboratory tests of each batch including the drained-off water for the presence of pathogenic bacteria, to minimize the threat of food borne illness.

Many retail packages of sprouts actually carry an FDA Warning that states: “The FDA advises that people who wish to reduce the risk of foodborne illness should not eat raw sprouts.”

Sprouts are produced entirely in water. The seed is never actually planted. A high density of seed is placed inside of sprouting equipment or enclosed containers such as glass jars. The seed germinates rapidly due to the high moisture and humidity levels maintained in the enclosures. Seeds can also be sprouted in bags that are repeatedly soaked in water. The sprouting process occurs in the dark or with very low light. These dark, wet, crowded conditions are ideal for the rapid proliferation of dangerous pathogenic bacteria.

After one day of soaking and a few days of rinsing only in water (2-6 or more times per day to prevent spoilage such as mold), the sprouted seeds are ready for consumption. This is long before the expansion of any leaves. These sprouted seeds are generally sold as a tangled mass of very pale roots, stems and leaf buds. Microgreens cannot be grown using these methods.

Microgreens are not grown in water. The seeds are planted and grown in soil or a soil substitute such as peat moss, or other fibrous materials. They should be grown in high light conditions with low humidity and good air circulation. The seed density is a fraction of what is used in sprout processing so that each individual plant has space in which to grow and develop. Most varieties require 7-14 days growing time, some much longer. After the leaves are fully expanded, the microgreens are ready for harvest. They are cut above the soil surface and packed without any roots. Some microgreens are sold while still growing so they can be cut by the end user.

If the stem is cut, leaving the root behind, and it is not produced in water, it is a microgreen, not a sprout. Microgreens that are grown in the brightest light with plenty of space and good ventilation have increased vigor resulting in more color and flavor.

The conditions that are ideal for growing microgreens do not encourage the growth of dangerous pathogens. These growing methods would not work for the production of sprouts.

To minimize confusion, it is important to avoid using words like “sprouting” or “sprouts” when writing about or describing microgreens. FDA inspectors do not always understand the differences, potentially putting a microgreen grower in the position of explaining them. There could be confusion if the grower has described microgreens as being in any way similar to sprouts. Writers do everyone a disservice when the interchange the two terms. The FDA will consider enforcement actions against any party growing sprouts commercially, who does not have effective preventive controls in place, involving extensive microbial testing and FDA oversight.

Microgreens have much stronger, more developed flavors than sprouts making them an ideal garnish with a broad range of leaf shapes, textures and colors.

General Specifications of a Microgreen

A microgreen consists of a central stem having two fully developed cotyledon leaves, and usually one pair of the plant’s true leaves. Differences in the size and leaf configuration are based upon the specific plant variety. For example, Micro Borage is a very large microgreen. At one inch in height, it has a pair of very large cotyledon leaves and no true leaves. By comparison, Micro Mint has extremely tiny cotyledon leaves and will have three to four sets of true leaves at about one inch in height. More typical in size and leaf configuration is Micro Basil at about one to one and a half inches in height, having the cotyledon leaves and one set of small true leaves.

The seeds used to grow microgreens are the same seeds that are used for full-sized herbs, vegetables and greens. Microgreens are simply seedlings that are harvested before they develop into larger plants.

Microgreens and Nutrition

It has become an urban legend that microgreens possess high concentrations of various nutritional and beneficial compounds. Numerous articles and websites claim that microgreens are the latest nutritional miracle-food. The fact is, there have been no studies done on microgreens to substantiate any of these claims. It would of course be to our benefit to claim that microgreens are some kind of super-food. Most likely, microgreens actually have a lower nutritional value than full-sized vegetables and herbs. Some sprouts have been said to contain particularly high concentrations of certain chemo-protective compounds, however the highest concentration of these is actually found in the seed. Since sprouts are consumed with the seed still attached, this may explain these results. If people feel they really want more of these compounds, they should simply eat the seed before it is sprouted. Of course, microgreens are not sprouts. Microgreens are cut at the stem, and have no roots or seed attached so there would be no reason to think these compounds exist in any particularly high amounts. Fresh Origins does not rely on unsubstantiated claims to sell its product. If at some point there are reliable nutritional studies done on microgreens, and they do show high values, Fresh Origins will be very pleased to promote it.

The USDA has weighed in on the situation: Although research suggests a promising role for SGS (Sulforaphane Glucosinolate) in promoting health, the research results do not permit definitive scientific conclusions on specific health benefits. At this time, the U.S. FDA has not reached any such conclusions or authorized any claims specifically for SGS or broccoli sprouts. There is no mention of microgreens.

Regarding the nutritional value of sprouts, the USDA has listed the nutritional value of sprouts compared to full-sized broccoli. In summary, broccoli sprouts are significantly lower in nutritional value when compared to full-sized broccoli. Of note: the sprouts were lower in protein (1.4 compared to 2.324 mg.), fiber, Vitamin A (561 compared to 1,082.64 IU), Riboflavin (none found in sprouts compared to.043 mg.), Vitamin B-6 (.07 compared to.112 mg.), Vitamin C (20 compared to 58.188 mg), Iron (.22 compared to.665 mg.). This relates to microgreens in that the younger form of broccoli (sprouts) have lower nutritional value than mature broccoli, so it stands to reason that microgreens have lower nutritional value than their full-sized counterparts as well.

Varieties of Microgreens

Commonly grown varieties of microgreens include Amaranth, Arugula, Beets, Basil, Cabbage, Celery, Chard, Chervil, Cilantro, Cress, Fennel, Kale, Mustard, Parsley, Radish, and Sorrel. Several varieties can be mixed together after harvest to create a mixture of tastes, and colors.

Source by David Sasuga

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