Alfalfa is the most ubiquitous of sprouts. Next in line are mung bean sprouts with their white colouring and incredibly long tails, sitting in plastic bags in the produce section or finding their way into stir-fry dishes. Other sprouted seeds and grains are making their appearance on store shelves and kitchen counters: lentil, pea, rice, quinoa, and broccoli as examples. What’s the difference between sprouted and unsprouted beans, seeds, and grains? What’s their nutrient profile and are there any health concerns you should be aware of?

Many sprouts are…

Nutrition power houses. Why? Generally speaking, germination lets loose many of the nutrients that were lying dormant in the unsprouted seed/grain and allows your body to absorb them with greater ease. Technically speaking, the process of soaking a grain or seed activates phytases. The phytases are your friends as they help break apart the phytates (phytic acid), which bind important minerals like calcium, iron, and zinc. Once broken apart (by soaking, sprouting, or even fermenting, juicing and blending), the minerals are more readily assimilated by the intestine.

Sprouting also makes plant protein more digestible (but see below for a note on some sprouted beans and their protein inhibitors). The Sprout People note that sprouts contain increased levels of vitamin C and chlorophyll and cite evidence surrounding broccoli sprouts and their enhanced levels of the antioxidant sulfurophane.

Not everything is sunshine and sprouts

Health Canada warns that animal manure, heat, and improper handling and storage have led to e-coli outbreaks among certain sprouts. They suggest that ‘high-risk’ individuals (young children, seniors, people with compromised immune systems) avoid sprouts (specifically mung and alfalfa) and that otherwise healthy adults who want to enjoy them ensure they are well-cooked. E-coli isn’t the only concern when it comes to sprouts, however.

Trypsin inhibitors

Legumes contain many ‘antinutrients;’ and trypsin inhibitors are of focus when talking about sprouts.

There is an enzyme, trypsin, that breaks protein down allowing for its amino acids to be properly assimilated by our bodies. Trypsin inhibitors block this protein digestion. Legumes contain two main trypsin inhibitors: Bowman-Birk and Kunitz. Soybeans contain the most inhibitors, but they are found in all other legumes, especially chickpeas. Usually, the human stomach is able to break down these inhibitors, but not the Bowman-Birk (BB) type; the BB’s arrive intact in the small intestine, reducing the ability of our bodies to use the proteins. This is of concern if you eat lot of sprouts and/or your overall protein intake for the day is marginal.

Boiling your legumes reduces the trypsin inhibitors by 80-100% while germination (sprouting) only allows for a 15-65% reduction. In Becoming Raw, renowned plant-based dieticians Vesanto Melina and Brenda Davis state:

When trypsin inhibitors block the action of trypsin, the pancreas is stimulated to produce more of this enzyme. This can drain the body’s supply of sulfar-containing amino acids that are used in making trypsin. Legumes are already low in sulfar containing amino acids, so when beans high in trypsin inhibitors are consumed, protein nutrition could be compromised…

Behind all the science, if you’re using sprouted legumes, the recommendation is that lentils and mung beans appear to be your best choices. Don’t be discouraged that sprouting chickpeas or other big beans isn’t recommended; instead, rejoice in the variety of ‘sproutable’ options out there — anything from broccoli and daikon radish to buckwheat, kamut, and quinoa and sunflower and pumpkin seeds.

So, let’s get those tails going!

What you’ll need (if you don’t have a commercial sprouter):

• 1 litre Mason jar, preferably wide mouth
• Sprouting lid, mesh screen, or cheesecloth and elastic band or mason jar ring
• Fresh water
• 2-5 Tablespoons of seed/grain to sprout (small seeds start with 2, bigger ones go with 4-5 T)

What you do

• Step 1: put your seeds of choice in a Mason jar (or other glass jar of your choice)
• Step 2: Cover with water (generously, as they will expand) and soak overnight for 8-12 hours
• Step 3: Cover the mouth of the jar with the sprouting lid or cheesecloth/mesh cloth and secure it with an elastic or Mason jar ring. Prop it at a 45 degree angle, either in your dish rack or in a bowl, and let drain. Repeat this process 2-3 times a day, thoroughly rinsing and draining, especially if your house is warm (you don’t want mold forming!)
• Continue rinsing and draining until you see tails the size of the seed/legume/grain, or until you desire (taste as they are sprouting to see which stage you find most delicious. The flavour becomes more neutral as they grow)

Storage

After the tails are to a length of your liking, rinse the sprouts really well and place in a sealed container/jar in the fridge. You can also put a piece of paper towel or cloth at the bottom of the jar/container to absorb any moisture. Consume within 2-7 days depending on sprout (smell them to ensure they are still fresh).

Caveat

During your sprouting adventure you may encounter a few problems (they aren’t sprouting; they smell funny; etc). This is normal, so don’t give up. Maybe the legumes were really old? Maybe you didn’t rinse the grain enough? Whatever the case, keep trying as it’s really satisfying when they finally start to sprout.

How to enjoy?

Use as you normally would (i.e. if you sprout rice or quinoa, then cook it like you would, noting that it’ll cook faster!) or add them to a salad for a refreshing crunch. Throw them into a stir-fry. Snack on them throughout the day. Blend them into a smoothie. Use them as garnish. Make sprouted buckwheat pancakes. The options are endless!

Sprouts bring seeds and grains to life! They add a wealth of nutrients to any dish, not to mention taste. Sprouts can be enjoyed every day as part of balanced diet, but when choosing sprouted legumes, focus on small ones like lentils and mung beans. If you’re buying fresh sprouts from the supermarket, rinse them before use (and consider Health Canada’s advice of rinsing and cooking), but above all else, use your common sense (if something smells “off,” it probably is). As always, talk to your trusted health care provider if you’re making any drastic changes to your diet, or if you have any questions or concerns.

Soaking and aprouting times for some of the most common legumes/seeds/grains:

Seed Soaking Time Sprouting Time
Broccoli 8-12 hours 3-6 days
Red Clover 8-12 hours 4-6 days
Lentils 8-12 hours 3-5 days
Mung Beans 8-12 hours 2-4 days
Sunflower Seeds 8-12 hours 2 days
Buckwheat groats20-30 minutes 1-2 days (depending on heat)
Quinoa 8-12 hours 1-2 days
Wheat berries 12 hours 3 days

Remember, where possible, always choose organic seeds. With sunflower seeds, after they are done soaking, rinse off as many of the hulls as you can because they tend to go rancid quickly. And buckwheat gets really slimy, really fast, so be extra diligent when rinsing. Also, ensure you buy raw buckwheat and not its toasted version, kasha (it will never sprout).

Happy sprouting!