Scientists see microgreens as a functional food, which means that they can provide key nutrients in a practical way. Some people call them a superfood.
People have long grown mustard and cress on their kitchen window ledges and in classrooms. They are fun to grow, tasty to eat, and healthful. However, other types of sprout and microgreen have recently become popular as health foods.
Microgreens can play a role in both sweet and savory dishes.
In addition to their nutritional value, they can add flavor, texture, and color to salads and sandwiches. People can also add them to smoothies or use them as a garnish.
In this article, we look at the benefits of microgreens, how to add them to the diet, how to grow them, and any potential health risks.
Like sprouts, microgreens are a young vegetable. However, sprouts and microgreens are not the same.
Sprouts are newly germinated seeds that people harvest just as the seed begins to grow and before their leaves develop. Conversely, microgreens grow from sprouts, and they have leaves.
When the cotyledon leaves — the embryonic leaves — have fully developed, and the first true leaves have emerged, the plant becomes a microgreen.
People usually grow sprouts in water and harvest them within 2–3 days.
Microgreens can grow either in soil or hydroponically, but they need sunlight. People harvest them after 1–3 weeks, depending on the type.
People can grow microgreens from any herb or vegetable. The flavor will depend on the plant.
Popular microgreens include:
- red pak choi
- Swiss chard
Microgreens might offer several benefits as an addition to the diet.
Rich in nutrients
Many fresh plant products provide vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
These nutrients can help with:
- preventing a range of diseases
- managing weight
- boosting both mental and physical health and well-being
Microgreens can offer all of these benefits and possibly more.
Many plant based foods are a good source of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Vitamins and minerals play hundreds of roles in essential bodily processes.
Antioxidants help the body eliminate unstable waste molecules known as free radicals.
Free radicals result from both natural bodily processes and environmental pressures, such as pollution. As they build up, they can lead to cell damage. Eventually, this damage may contribute to the development of diseases, such as cancer.
The body can remove some free radicals, but they can still accumulate. Antioxidants from foods can help remove more of them. Plant based foods can provide antioxidants.
There is evidence to suggest that microgreens have a high antioxidant content, which means that they may help prevent a range of diseases. The exact types of antioxidant will depend on the plant.
Microgreens from the Brassica family, which include broccoli, contain high levels of vitamin E, a phenolic antioxidant. Asteraceae microgreens, such as chicory and lettuce, appear to be high in vitamin A, or carotenoid antioxidants.
Details about using microgreens to treat or prevent specific diseases are not yet available, but scientists are looking into their possible benefits
Some researchers have suggested that microgreens may be suitable for tailoring to provide additional nutrients to specific groups of people.
For example, one group of scientists produced chicory and lettuce microgreens with high levels of the nutrients that green, leafy vegetables usually contain but a lower potassium content. This nutrient profile, they said, could be useful for people with kidney disease.
Tailored microgreens could also be beneficial for people who follow a vegan, vegetarian, or raw food diet and for those who cannot access or consume fresh vegetables due to issues of availability, cost, or health.
There is a growing interest in sustainability, and microgreens could be a good way to provide city dwelling families with locally produced seasonal vegetables at a low cost.
Microgreens are easy to grow at home in a confined space. A small outlay can provide a significant return in terms of bulk, variety, and nutrients.
As they take just a few weeks to grow, it is possible to have an ongoing source of microgreens. By rotating three crops, for example, people could have fresh microgreens every week. Hydroponically grown microgreens do not even need soil.
Experts have suggested that microgreens could even provide fresh and healthful food for astronauts.
The nutritional value of microgreens varies according to type, as with conventional vegetables.
However, there is also evidence that some may contain a higher concentration of many nutrients than their mature, fully grown counterparts.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 100 grams (g) of kale microgreens provides only 29 calories.
Other research has indicated that Brassica microgreens, which include kale, may be an especially good source of antioxidant vitamins and the minerals potassium and calcium.
A 100 g serving of sunflower and basil microgreen mix will provide:
- 28 calories
- 2.2 g of protein
- 4.4 g of carbohydrate
- 2.2 g of fiber
- 88 milligrams (mg) of calcium
- 15.9 mg of iron
- 66 mg of magnesium
- 66 mg of phosphorus
- 298 mg of potassium
- 11 mg of sodium
- 0.7 mg of zinc
- 6.6 mg of vitamin C
- 79.6 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin A
- 66 mcg of folate
The greens also contain selenium, manganese, and a range of B vitamins.
The same size serving of sunflower and beet micrograms contains similar amounts of each nutrient but provides more iron, at 23.9 mg.
A 2012 study looked at the nutrient content of 25 different microgreens. The researchers found the highest concentrations of four different vitamins and carotenoids in the following items:
- red cabbage
- green daikon radish
- garnet amaranth
The key benefits of each microgreen varied. Red cabbage microgreens, for example, were rich in vitamin C but low in vitamin E. Green daikon radish microgreens were rich in vitamin E but relatively low in lutein in comparison with cabbage, cilantro, and amaranth.
Eating a variety of vegetables and microgreens will supply more of these helpful nutrients.
Microgreens are relatively easy to grow on a small scale and can thrive indoors if sunlight is available.
People wishing to grow their own microgreens can follow these steps:
- Scatter seeds over an inch of potting soil in a planter dish or tray and cover with another thin layer of soil.
- Mist the soil with water and place near a source of sunlight or a grow light.
- Continue to mist the seeds daily to keep the soil moist.
The microgreens will be ready to harvest in 2–3 weeks. People should take care to cut their greens above the soil line and rinse them well before using them.
You can purchase kits for growing microgreens online
As well as adding nutritional content, microgreens can boost color, enhance flavor, and add texture to any dish.
People can add microgreens to meals in the following ways:
- as a garnish for salads, soups, flatbreads, or pizzas
- to add nutritional value to a juice or smoothie
- as a side to any main dish
- to add flavor and color to an omelet or frittata
- as an alternative to lettuce in tacos or a burger or sandwich
Some experts have raised concerns about the risk of contamination of microgreens, for example, with Escherichia coli. The risk increases with the storage time, and it will depend partly on the type and composition of the microgreen. Some are more susceptible than others.
As with sprouts and other vegetables, sources of contamination can include:
- the soil or other medium in which they grow
- the irrigation water
- the type of microgreen
Some people who grow sprouts and microgreens commercially use disinfectant products, such as chlorinated water, to prevent contamination. Others rinse the plants frequently, up to 50 times before a sprout is ready to harvest, to keep them clean.
People can also spritz microgreens with chlorinated water from the tap just before eating them to minimize the risk.
The shelf life of microgreens varies from 10–14 days after harvesting.
People who buy microgreens from the grocery store should:
- ensure that they come from a reputable supplier
- check the sell-by date
- keep them refrigerated at a maximum of 5°C and eat them within 10 days
People who grow microgreens at home will be better able to manage these risks. Tips for producing microgreens safely at home include:
- using clean soil or hydroponic materials
- irrigating with clean water
- harvesting and consuming microgreens as soon as possible when they are ready
- keeping them refrigerated at no more than at 5 °C, if necessary, and eating them within 10 days
Microgreens can be a fun and practical way to add fresh, nutritious produce to meals, even for city dwellers. They can be a tasty addition to sweet and savory dishes, and they may have more nutrients than their conventional counterparts.
Parents and caregivers who invite their children to help them plant, water, and harvest microgreens on a window ledge might find that their children become more excited about eating greens.
In terms of cost and sustainability, growing microgreens can be a practical and economical way of putting fresh food on the table.