There’s been a lot of buzz around broccoli sprouts and their incredible health benefits. More recently, microgreens are starting to get a lot of attention and may be the next big superfood.
So what’s the difference, and which one fits into your diet and lifestyle?
Are sprouts and microgreens the same thing?
You’ve probably seen sprouts in your sandwiches for years, but maybe microgreens are a new item on your grocery store shelves. Both of these veggies are delicious additions to your diet...but they’re not the same thing.
Simply put, both sprouts and microgreens are baby plants. But in the way they’re grown, the way they taste, and in their nutrition content, sprouts and microgreens are actually very different!
What are sprouts?
So what are sprouts? These are barely-germinated seeds that have grown in water for 3-5 days. They’re usually only a couple inches long, don’t yet have real leaves, and the best part is you can eat the entire sprout from seed to root to stem!
Notice how they’re pale? Unlike microgreens and adult veggies, sprouts are usually a whitish to cream color. That’s because they don’t need light to grow. They’re using nutrition from the seed and don’t need light yet...no light means no photosynthesis, and no photosynthesis means no green chlorophyll.
Sprouts are generally used for texture, not flavor. Because they haven’t had the chance to develop real leaves, they usually have a very mild flavor and are used for adding a crunch.
What do broccoli sprouts look like?
Broccoli sprouts are pale, they have immature leaves called cotyledons, don’t have true leaves, and have a young root called a radicle. They sometimes have a seed coat still attached to the sprout.
What are microgreens?
Microgreens, on the other hand, are older than sprouts but not yet mature plants. They’re usually 4-5 inches long and can be grown from seed to harvest in anywhere from 5 to 15 days. Microgreens can be grown in soil or on substrates like jute or coconut fiber. At the point of harvest, they have real leaves, stems, and roots. To harvest them, you simply cut them off about one inch above the roots and eat them raw or gently cooked.
While sprouts don’t have much flavor and mostly serve to add crunch, microgreens are bursting with flavor and are a great addition to all kinds of dishes! You often see them as a garnish at high-end restaurants, but microgreens can be so much more.
Lemon balm and mint are great for fruit salads or desserts, radish and mustard greens are great for a bit of spice, and broccoli and amaranth are great as replacements for lettuce in a salad.
What do microgreens look like?
We’ve seen what sprouts look like. How does that compare to microgreens?
Like we mentioned above, sprouts tend to be pale because they have not yet started to photosynthesize. Microgreens, on the other hand, look more like a mini version of a full plant. They have true leaves, a stem, rootlets, and are generally 2-4 inches tall.
Health benefits of broccoli sprouts
Broccoli sprouts have tons of positive benefits for your health, and more research is coming out all the time. Even as early as the 1920s, people were extolling the benefits of sprouts. They started to really take off in the 1970s, when health-focused people started sprouting any seeds they could get their hands on, including broccoli.
Let’s get into some of the decades of research on broccoli sprout nutrition.
Broccoli sprouts nutrition
Both sprouts and microgreens and almost all plants, for that matter, start with seeds! Seeds are packed with nutrition and energy that are stored for when the plant is able to grow.
When seeds germinate, or start to grow, sugars are broken down into carbohydrates. Over the first few days of germination, proteins change into peptides and amino acids and become more bioavailable when eaten. As a reminder, being bioavailable means that the compounds from the foods you’re eating actually hit your bloodstream.
When germination happens, it doesn’t actually increase the nutrition in the seed. Germination causes a series of physical and chemical changes, but the nutrients in the seed are the nutrients in the sprout.
Some health boosting compounds found in sprouts and microgreens are polyphenols, minerals, and vitamins: all three fall under the category of micronutrients, which are nutrients that we need in relatively small quantities but are generally more difficult to get than macronutrients, like protein and carbohydrates.
Polyphenols are compounds that contain large phenol groups–hydroxyl groups linked to a benzene ring. If you’re not into biochemistry, just know that they’re very important natural micronutrients that we get from eating plants.
Sprout polyphenols can be especially important because researchers studying quinoa and amaranth sprouts found that total polyphenol content was directly related to amount of antioxidant activity in cells. So, eat your sprout polyphenols to up your antioxidants!
Minerals are super important micronutrients for human health. Minerals play a role in many things, from building blood and teeth, to regulating blood pressure, to balancing fluids in the body.
Sprouts can provide a wide array of minerals like calcium, magnesium and iron. In most cases, the amount of minerals increases from seed to sprout, even after only four days of growth.
Incredibly, the amount of zinc in some sprouts can provide 50% of an adult’s daily recommendation! The sprouts in the study provided about 50-80 ug (micrograms) per gram.
Vitamins are organic compounds that function as nutrients that our bodies need to build and repair itself. There are 13 essential vitamins: A, C, D, E, K, B (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, B12). Eating a diet that gives us plenty of vitamins is essential because our bodies are unable to make many of these nutrients, so we must get them through our food.
Microgreens produce plenty of vitamins. In the case of vitamin B1, seeds often contain more of the vitamin than the sprout. However, B2 triples in radish, rapeseed, and white mustard sprouts compared to their seeds.
In mungbeans, sprouts contained higher amounts of vitamins than in the seeds, including vitamins B1, B2, B3 and vitamin C.
Microgreens nutrition info
While sprouts certainly are great for you, microgreens are rising to superfood status. A seminal study first-authored by Dr. Zhenlei Xiao researched the nutrient concentration of 25 microgreens and showed how these baby vegetables frequently have higher concentrations of vitamins in their tiny leaves than in mature vegetables.
Next time you’re reaching for sprouts at the grocery store, stop and consider one of these incredible microgreens stats:
- Vitamin K1 (phylloquinone) is much lower in mature amaranth, basil and red cabbage than in those vegetables’ microgreens. Vitamin K also seems to play an important role in preventing heart disease and is essential to blood clotting and bone health. Vitamin K also activates a protein that helps prevent calcium from depositing in your arteries. 18 out of 25 microgreens tested had equal or higher amounts of K1 than adult broccoli!
- Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) in red cabbage microgreens is 6 times higher than adult red cabbage. Vitamin C is necessary for the growth, development, and repair of all body tissues. It's involved in many body functions, including the formation of collagen, absorption of iron, the immune system, wound healing, and the maintenance of cartilage, bones, and teeth
- Most microgreens had comparable amounts of beta-carotene to carrot and sweet potato, both considered to be abundant sources of beta-carotene. Beta carotene is a precursor of vitamin A, which we need for healthy skin, mucous membranes, immune system functioning, and good eye health and vision. Cilantro microgreens even have three times as much beta-carotene as adult cilantro, while red cabbage microgreens have 260 times as much beta-carotene as adult red cabbage!
- Lutein and zeaxanthin are higher in sorrel, red cabbage and garnet amaranth than in adult spinach
- Cilantro microgreens has more than 5 times the violaxanthin that mature cilantro
- Even in microgreens that had the low vitamin E (gamma-tocopherol) relative to other microgreens, they still had more vitamin E than adult spinach
The bottom line is this: microgreens are nutrient-dense superfoods!
How much sulforaphane in broccoli sprouts?
Broccoli sprouts have been hailed by several doctors and nutritionists as one of the most potent sources of the cruciferous vegetable isothiocyanate sulforaphane. Dr. Rhonda Patrick, a biochemist and nutrition/longevity expert, recommends eating sprouts often for their high levels of sulforaphane.
Interestingly, the highest levels of sulforaphane in broccoli plants are in the ungerminated seeds–however, plain broccoli seeds aren’t that fun to eat so the next best thing is to eat broccoli sprouts and of course, broccoli microgreens.
We all know that the way a food is grown is very important for both the environment and for the food’s nutrient content, and sulforaphane in broccoli sprouts is no exception! Several researchers studying different growth methods for broccoli sprouts have found that temperature differences cause healthy compounds in sprouts to vary. In general, higher growth temperatures leads to higher amounts of glucoraphanin (the precursor to sulforaphane) and sulforaphane.
Similarly, Dr. Rhonda Patrick shows how to triple your sprouts’ sulforaphane content by heating them gently for just a few minutes!
While most compounds in natural foods will vary (have you ever eaten an extra spicy jalapeño and wondered why that one is so much spicier than usual?), there’s some consensus about how much sulforaphane is in dried broccoli sprouts: about 1100 milligrams / 100 grams. To put that in context, that’s nearly 5 times as much as the same weight of adult broccoli!
But while ‘high-potency’ broccoli seed and sprout extracts have around 30% bioavailability of sulforaphane, research shows that microgreens have between 30 and 60% bioavailability of sulforaphane! Microgreens have more nutrients than sprouts and as much bioavailability of those nutrients, and in some cases even more!
Sprouts and E. coli
Sprouts are grown by soaking and draining the seeds, and then spreading them out in trays. They are irrigated continually, and the temperature is kept around 100º F. While this process is great for growing sprouts, it’s also a great environment for growing bacteria such as Escherichia coli and Salmonella enterica. Around 30 outbreaks of harmful bacterial infected sprouts have been recorded in the US since 1996.
In fact, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) just announced another outbreak of E. coli traced to sprouts on April 22, 2020!
Why is this tiny bacterium such a big deal? While there are several harmless strains of E. coli found in human intestines, some strains can cause diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. Simply washing raw sprouts before eating them will not remove the bacteria. The only way to kill the bacteria is to cook the sprouts until they are 160ºF.
However, while raising the temperature will kill harmful bacteria, it will also diminish some of the nutritional value of the sprouts.
On the other hand, research shows microgreens are less likely to cause foodborne illness. One study noted that while sprouts are linked to thousands of foodborne-pathogen related illnesses, as of 2016 there have been no outbreaks or illness associated with microgreens. That’s just one more reason why choosing microgreens over sprouts is smart for your health.
Microgreens vs sprouts
So who’s the winner in this comparison? We think by now you’re probably convinced to choose microgreens! Let's recap:
- Microgreens have amazing flavors and vibrant colors since they’ve developed true leaves, while sprouts are usually mild-flavored and colorless
- Microgreens have higher concentrations of many micronutrients than mature vegetables and sprouts
- Microgreens are much less likely to grow toxic bacteria since, unlike sprouts, they’re not grown in a dark and humid environment
- Microgreens have at least as much nutrient bioavailability as sprouts, and in some cases they have much higher nutrient bioavailability
Microgreens are highly nutritious superfoods and they're full of flavor. We’re big fans of growing our own microgreens at home (keep your eyes peeled for our July blog!), but if that seems like too much work just get your microgreens easily with our new Broccoli Booster!
Broccoli Booster is 100% organically grown and freeze-dried broccoli microgreens are an easy way to get your sulforaphane and micronutrients. Just sprinkle them on your eggs, salad or scoop them into your next soup or smoothie. Microgreen nutrition has never been made easier!
Carly Anderson Stewart, MSc | Head of Biology and Education