“Sprouts are the young greens, typically only days old, whose seeds have just germinated and begun to develop stems and leaves only a couple of inches in length,” says William Li, MD, a physician-scientist and author of Eat To Beat Disease: The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself.
There are a variety of different sprouts, including bean, broccoli, beets, and pea sprouts. The nutritional value of the many types differ, but they’re typically rich in many vitamins, minerals, and essential amino acids. “They are high in vitamin K, many B vitamins like niacin, riboflavin, thiamin, folate, and pantothenic acid, as well as vitamin C and vitamin A,” says Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, CDN, founder of Real Nutrition. “Sprouts also contain minerals like zinc, calcium, manganese, and copper.”
You can consume sprouts raw or lightly cook them. However, Shapiro notes that they lose their nutrient content when they are cooked. It’s also worth noting that although raw sprouts are very nutritious, not everyone’s digestive system can tolerate them. “Make sure they are washed thoroughly and properly to reduce the risk of contamination from salmonella and E. coli,” says Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN, of Maya Feller Nutrition.
Dr. Li adds that when buying sprouts from your local grocery store or farmers market, "check to make sure they have been properly refrigerated and are not slimy, which could be a sign of bacterial growth."
Now that you’re caught up on sprouts 101, keep reading to learn the health benefits of sprouts and tips on how to incorporate them into your diet.
Health benefits of sprouts
1. Sprouts help you fight illness and are anticancer
Raw sprouts, especially broccoli sprouts, are rife with antioxidants. “Broccoli offers an incredible amount of glucoraphanin, the precursor to the compound sulforaphane,” Shapiro says. “Sulforaphane helps activate and strengthen our body’s natural cancer protection and helps decrease the chance of malignancy.”
In other words, broccoli sprouts may help protect the body against cancer by reducing the spread of cancerous cells and supporting the body to eliminate harmful substances. Shapiro adds, “broccoli sprouts are about 50 times more powerful in cancer prevention than their mature counterpart.”
2. Sprouts help with hormones, acne, and PMS
The sulforaphane found in broccoli sprouts, along with Indole-3-carbinol, which many cruciferous veggies contain, help women’s bodies maintain healthy and balanced estrogen levels, says Kate Denniston, ND, founder of Los Angeles Integrative Health.
“Indole-3-carbinol helps assist the liver with the detoxification of excess hormones,” Dr. Denniston says. “[It can also] can help reduce symptoms of PMS, irregular periods, and hormonal acne. Sulforaphane helps shift estrogen metabolism to the most healthy biochemical pathway and may protect against estrogen-mediated damage.”
3. Sprouts support healthy digestion
Raw sprouts are also good for your gut. “Studies have shown that the soaking process actually increases the amount of enzymes available to the sprout, and increases the amount of fiber in the sprout,” Shapiro says. The fiber, which helps food pass through the GI tract smoothly, combine with these enzymes to help break down food more efficiently, making sprouts a great digestion-friendly addition to your diet.
4. Sprouts reduce hangover symptoms
Had one too many glasses of wine? Snacking on some raw sprouts may help you feel better. “Sulforaphane also helps the body eliminate alcohol by-products that cause unpleasant hangover symptoms,” Dr. Denniston says. “It does this by upregulating the second phase of detoxification in the liver and reduces the accumulation of by-products that have been metabolized by the first stage of detoxification, which usually causes symptoms like nausea.”
5. Sprouts improve insulin resistance
For folks who struggle with insulin resistance, sprouts may be a helpful addition to their diet. “Researchers studied 63 patients with type 2 diabetes who consumed broccoli sprouts or a placebo and found that those who ate sprouts had improvement in insulin resistance, a key factor in type 2 diabetes where the body’s response to insulin can help improve control of blood glucose,” Dr. Li says.
6. Sprouts boost the immune system
In addition to helping to maintain balanced estrogen levels and reducing hangover symptoms, the natural bioactive sulforaphane compound in sprouts also helps activate the body’s immune response against viruses.
"In a clinical study of 29 patients receiving a flu vaccine, half were given a broccoli sprout shake," says Dr. Li. "Those who drank the shake had more potent immune cell function, and increased production by immune natural killer (NK) cells of an enzyme called granzyme B, which helps to remove virus-infected cells from the body."
How to incorporate sprouts into your diet
“Sprouts can be incorporated into meals, and eaten, in a variety of ways,” Shapiro says. They’re great for adding texture, flavor, and color to different dishes.
Dr. Li suggests tossing your broccoli sprouts into a smoothie along with water, banana, and ripe mango for a tropical and nutritious treat in the morning. Or, if you need something a little heartier, Shapiro recommends topping your omelet with some raw sprouts.
Feller’s go-to way to get in some sprouts is by putting some on an open-faced sandwich atop hummus and avocado. “They add a nutty crunch depending on the variety,” she says.
For a quick and healthy lunch, Shapiro recommends tossing a handful of alfalfa sprouts or whatever sprouts you have on hand, along with a fresh bunch of arugula, pistachios, and a sprinkle of pomegranate seeds for some antioxidants and color. Dress it with a bit of apple cider vinegar, olive oil, and lemon juice. And that's it—now you’ve got yourself a nutrient-packed salad for lunch.
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