Perhaps no other food has quite the historied health halo as sprouts: Once a symbol of hippie health food in the ’60s and ’70s, today sprouts are available in many grocery stores and restaurants. Now new research tells us there's good reason that sprouts have enjoyed their wellness-promoting status. Broccoli sprouts, in particular, are garnering the attention of researchers, due to the plant's high levels of sulforaphane, a powerful phytochemical found in cruciferous vegetables.

The term 'sprouts' refers to not just one food, but to a whole category. Sprouts are the edible germinated seeds of beans, legumes, nuts, and grains as well as vegetables. Some of the most common sprouts you’re likely to find in your grocery store or on your favorite restaurant menu are alfalfa, broccoli, clover, wheatgrass, mung, lentil, or chickpea. You may also find baked products made with sprouted grains, such as Ezekiel bread, known for its high protein content of 5 grams per slice.

Sprouts also reduce the potency of "antinutrients" which are the phytochemicals plants produce to discourage animals, including humans, from eating them. Antinutrients lower the absorption of other nutrients in the digestive system. Sprouting, fermenting or soaking all work to deactivate these antinutrients in foods like legumes and increase the nutrient value of the food you eat.

Here are the 7 benefits of sprouts

1. Sprouts contribute to a healthy weight

If you’re looking to lose weight or manage your current weight, load up on sprouted vegetables and legumes, which are low – or even extremely low – in calories. For example, one cup of lentil sprouts has 82 calories and one cup of alfalfa sprouts has just under 8 calories.

More importantly, sprouts offer so much nutrition for the calories, says  Brigitte Zeitlin, Registered Dietitian and founder of BZ Nutrition, based in New York City. She advises clients looking to lose weight to focus on what nutrients a food adds to their diet rather than counting calories. “When I work with my clients, I don’t talk to my clients in terms of calories because I think it’s really important to talk about food as food,” she says.

2. Sprouts give your diet a major nutrition boost

Although each type of sprout has a unique nutrition profile, as a general rule, sprouting boosts a food’s nutrient levels. For example, in a comprehensive review of sprouted whole grains published in Nutrients, the authors write that folate and other bioactive compounds increase in sprouted foods and nutrition inhibitors such as phytate decrease in comparison to the mature plant. In turn, there are more antioxidants and bioavailability of nutrients in the sprouts than the grown vegetable or legume.

“Sprouts are high in a variety of vitamins and minerals,” Zeitlin said. The particular profile depends on the type of sprout, but sprouts tend to be rich in vitamin C, which is important for your immunity and for collagen production; vitamin K, which also plays a major role in keeping your immune system strong; B vitamins, important for stress-management and magnesium. And sprouted grains offer more protein than their non-sprouted counterparts.

3. Sprouts help manage blood sugar

Sprouts may just be the ticket to maintain lower blood sugar, although researchers don’t fully understand why. Several studies suggest that sprouts help lower blood sugar and show promise for those with type 2 diabetes. “Some sprouts, especially broccoli sprouts, contain powerful bioactive compounds that have been associated with improvements in blood glucose levels and inflammatory markers, with a potential to attenuate the progression of type 2 diabetes,” says Julieanna Hever, RD, founder of the Plant-Based Dietician and author of The Choose You Now Diet.

A study in Science Translational Medicine found that sulforaphane taken as concentrated broccoli sprout extract showed promise in helping type 2 diabetes patients manage their blood sugar. Keeping blood sugar low is one key to maintaining a healthy weight since spikes lead to insulin surges and potential weight gain as the body stores excess calories as fat.

4. Sprouts are a great way to get fiber

Another way sprouts help you maintain a healthy weight is that they are extremely high in fiber. “Sprouts offer up a really good source of fiber,” says Zeitlin, who explains: “Fiber helps to keep you full and satiated throughout the day. So you have more energy and you’re more alert while you’re at work or in school.” Fiber also slows down the absorption of food in the digestive system, so your cells get a trickly, not a firehose, of calories from the foods you eat, which in turn keeps blood sugar low, preventing insulin spikes that lead to fat storage and weight gain.

A study in Plant Foods for Human Nutrition found that grains that were sprouted for five days had up to 133 percent more fiber as compared with un-sprouted grains. Another study in the International Food Research Journal found that sprouting significantly increased both soluble and insoluble fiber content of the food you eat. Soluble fiber is broken down by the body and insoluble fiber adds bulk or roughage to food, further slowing down digestion and keeping you feeling full for longer.

5. Sprouts improve digestion and boost gut health

If you want a healthy gut microbiome, adding sprouts to your diet is a good move. Eating sprouts (as opposed to whole wheat) can lower gluten intake, and in turn make grains more digestible, particularly for anyone with a gluten sensitivity. Certain types of sprouts show therapeutic promise for treating gut-related conditions, according to studies. Specifically, broccoli sprouts taken for 7 days has been shown to be a promising treatment for the bacterial infection that causes peptic ulcers, Helicobacter pylori infection.

“Broccoli sprouts are really good for helping to overcome certain [conditions] like H Pylori, says Nour Zibdeh, MS RDN, a Virginia-based functional dietitian who specializes in digestive health.  “Also sprouts can be easier to digest [than other plant food like legumes]. So for people who, for example, may have a hard time with foods like lentils and chickpeas, using sprouts is one way to eat those foods and get the nutrition without having the side effects of bloating or discomfort” if they’re prone to that.

6. Sprouts have been shown to help fight inflammation

Reaching for sprouts after a hard workout may help stave off the sore muscles, research shows, and sprouts may also help you stay uninjured and healthier by fighting inflammation.

Sprouts have been shown to fight inflammation and help provide protection against cardiovascular disease.  Broccoli sprouts in particular appear to be helpful in fighting heart disease. A study in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that broccoli sprout extract had a protective effect on blood vessels, lessening inflammation in endothelial cells, which line the walls of your blood vessels. These cells are key in the progression of cardiovascular disease so keeping them healthy is a vital goal when it comes to heart health.

The preliminary research is promising, though the scientists who conducted the study stress that further research is needed. “Further longitudinal clinical study is needed to clarify whether supplementation of sulforaphane-rich broccoli sprout extract could prevent the development and progression of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease,” the authors wrote. However, broccoli sprouts aren’t the only sprouts with anti-inflammatory properties. Buckwheat sprouts also have strong anti-inflammatory properties, studies have shown.

7. Sprouts can help you stay healthy

Other than the potential protection against cardiovascular disease, studies point to sprouts having anti-cancer properties, says Zibdeh. On the cancer front, numerous studies support the protective effects of broccoli sprouts against cancer, though the study points out that they can lose their cancer-fighting properties when cleaned or heated, which poses challenges on a practical or clinical application, the authors point out.

Risks of sprouts and tips on sprout safety

So could sprouts be the perfect health food? While all this research is promising, there are potential downsides to adding sprouts to your diet, and some people should not be eating them, due to possible food safety risks.

“I have mixed feelings about sprouts, says Massachusetts-based Ryan D. Andrews, RD, author of Swole Planet: Building a Better Body and a Better Earth. “I like that [sprouting is] opening up the opportunity for us to get nutrients from the food. What I don't like about sprouts is they have a troublesome past when it comes to food safety. You need warmth and humidity for something to sprout, and those are prime conditions for potentially problematic bacteria to flourish.”

Contaminated sprouts have been associated with a number of foodborne outbreaks. To help you avoid the potential risks, experts offer these tips on sprouts food safety.

How to eat sprouts safely and avoid potential contamination

  1. Only use sprouts (or sprouted products) from a quality source.
  2. If you try sprouting at home, be vigilant about quality controls.
  3. Inspect sprouts carefully. They should not look mushy or be slimy to the touch.
  4. Wash sprouts thoroughly before using and wash hands after touching them.
  5. Consider cooking them. Some nutrients will be lost, but cooking thoroughly can kill harmful germs.
  6. Not everyone should eat sprouts, though cooking does lower the risk. According to the CDC, “it’s especially important to avoid raw sprouts if you are in a group more likely to get seriously sick from food poisoning: older adults, young children, people with weakened immune systems, and pregnant women.”

How to add sprouts to your diet

There are easy ways to add sprouts to your meals. Sprouts are a great addition to stir-fries and tofu scrambles. They’re a nice topper for soups and stews, for example. And they add a nice texture to your sandwich, suggests Zeitlin.

Make this delicious Quinoa and Veggie Sushi recipe.

How many sprouts should you eat in a day?

“I have not seen any dosing recommendations for sprouts, says Hever. “And I have not seen people over-consuming them that I know of. Most people could benefit from eating more sprouts.” 

Bottom Line: Sprouts are an easy way to add nutrients to your diet.

Sprouts are a great way to get fiber, nutrients and keep blood sugar low, which can help you lose weight. Eat sprouts, but before you add sprouts to your plate, wash them and consider cooking them to avoid any potential contamination.

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