Sprouts have taken over my kitchen: fluffy, pale green tails rinsing off in the sink, along with fogged jars that are busy germinating seeds and grains on the counters. It all feels a bit retro. I remember when I was eight years old, and my mom snipped the toe off a new pair of pantyhose and stretched it over the mouth of a glass canning jar to grow alfalfa sprouts.
Nearly 30 years later, sprouts are no longer a homegrown affair but a staple of restaurants, produce sections, and salad bars—and the darling of nutritionists. For some years now, proponents of raw and "living" foods have claimed that sprouts—truly alive at the time of consumption—impart their life energy and vitality to your system when you eat them. "Sprouts are one of the best foods for people to eat," says Patty Lawrence, a general manager at Cafe Gratitude, a living-food restaurant with four locations around the San Francisco Bay Area. Here, sprouted nuts and seeds are the basis for crackers, pates, nut milks, and ice cream, and the salads come piled high with a variety of sprouts. "Sprouts are just waking up and coming alive, getting ready to burst into life and become a plant," she says. "When you eat them, you’re getting all of that energy."
Lawrence’s explanation of what happens when you eat sprouts sounds a lot like what scientists are now saying. Seeds, including nuts and legumes, contain enzyme inhibitors that allow them to remain dormant during the dry season (whether they spend it out in nature or in the bulk section of the natural-food store). Under the right conditions, moisture activates the enzymes and causes the seeds to begin sprouting into plants, at which point vitamin density increases.
According to Barbara Sanderson, a founder of Jonathan’s Organic, which has been growing and distributing sprouts in New England for 32 years, and a founding member of the International Sprout Growers Association, sprouting is getting its due. "In the ’60s it was folklore," she says. "What’s happening now is that science that people trust is coming to see the value of sprouts."
A study by the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine shows that three-day-old broccoli sprouts contain 10 to 100 times the cancer-fighting compounds found in mature broccoli. And an article in the Annual Review of Nutrition indicates that alfalfa sprouts are one of the richest sources of phytoestrogens, a broad category of naturally occurring plant compounds associated with myriad health benefits, including increased protection against cancer and heart disease. In a 2004 study by the Tokyo University of Agriculture, subjects who ate 3 1/2 ounces of broccoli sprouts daily for just one week showed reduced cholesterol levels and higher levels of HDL (or "good" cholesterol), compared with the levels they had before they began eating sprouts.
Modern yogis, too, praise sprouts—albeit in less scientific terms. "Sprouts are one of the major healing foods," says Jessica Unmani King, a Forrest Yoga teacher and former chef for the Living Foods Institute in Atlanta. "Because they are in their natural state, the life force, or prana, is still pulsing through them. When a live body takes in live food, the body recognizes it immediately and uses it for healing and optimum nutrition."
Garden of Delights
As a chronically sleep-deprived working parent, I certainly wouldn’t mind having a little extra vitality. But while I’m not ready to convert to a diet of all living foods, I’m curious to see if simply growing and eating nutrient-packed sprouts will make a noticeable difference in my energy level.
If the science behind the nutritional value of sprouts has advanced by leaps and bounds, the methods for growing them at home have not. The jar sprouter I bought for about $5 at my local natural-food store might have been just like the one that my mother used decades ago, though I didn’t have to sacrifice stockings; it came with plastic screens for rinsing and draining the sprouts. I found fancier devices online, ranging from $10 mesh bags to elaborate $200 models with built-in misters. Giving in to nostalgia (not to mention counter space), I felt the most comfortable with my souped-up Mason jar sprouter.
Following the instructions that came with the jar, I soaked and drained a large handful of dull, dusty-looking alfalfa, clover, and radish seeds and propped the jar upside down in the dish drainer. After about 12 hours, the seeds looked plump, pearlescent, and distinctly alive. Many of the hulls had softened and split, and a few of the seeds had tiny white tails poking out. By the evening of day two, I was elated to see that the seeds were unmistakably sprouting. After four days, my jar was packed with sprouts that looked just like ones I’d bought in plastic cartons at the store. The difference, according to Eartha Shanti—a yoga teacher, nutrition counselor, and sprout grower in Chico, California—was that they were considerably fresher: "I tell people, if you are going to eat sprouts, grow them yourself or get them from a grower."
It proved almost absurdly easy to grow many types of sprouts, from radish to fenugreek. If the variety of seeds offered on websites such as sproutpeople.com is any indication, nearly any seed can be sprouted. Think mustard, pumpkin, and onion as well as alfalfa, clover, broccoli, mung bean, wheat, and lentils, to name a few options. Most seed sources recommend that you use organic, untreated seeds for sprouting. I chose ones I could sprout in a jar (like sunflower and buckwheat), rather than those that needed dirt. Except for rinsing my sprouts twice a day, I left them undisturbed to do what they would. Over the next few weeks I managed to produce crop after crop of fresh sprouted seeds, which Shanti advised me would last anywhere from three days to a week stored in the refrigerator.
Staff of Life
I was particularly intrigued by the idea of baking with sprouted grains, adding life to the staff of life, as it were. The Alvarado Street Bakery, a cooperative organic bakery in Petaluma, California, is a pioneer in the field of baking with sprouted grains. For almost 30 years, bakers there have been sprouting and grinding wheat berries and a variety of other grains to make light, nutty-tasting breads and baked goods, which the company says are more easily digested than bread made with conventional flour. I couldn’t help wondering, was it worth spending four days coaxing a seed from its dormant phase if you’re then going to grind it up and bake it?
"Certainly nothing is alive after it goes into a 400-degree oven. It’s not like yogurt; it’s not a living food anymore," says Michael Girkout, who is Alvarado’s president. "But at that point the beneficial enzyme activity has already taken place. The amylase has changed the seed into a living, breathing plant, and plant matter is a lot easier to digest than flour. Bread made from sprouted wheat is more nutritious than bread made from whole-wheat flour, because the nutrients are more readily assimilated by the body."
I wasn’t sure I had the chops to create my own entirely flourless, sprouted loaf because of the difficulty in grinding my sprouts. So I tried simply incorporating three-day-old sprouted barley grains into my favorite recipe for whole-wheat bread and pizza crust.
The result was a moist, finely textured wheat bread studded with chewy sprouted grains, which did not seem to bother my normally texture-phobic three-year-old. I finely chopped my next batch of sprouted barley into a fibrous-looking paste and added it to pizza dough. I topped the speckled dough with red onions roasted with balsamic vinegar, chunks of roasted kabocha squash, and a little mozzarella. Once the pizza came out of the oven, I sprinkled it with sunflower sprouts from the farmers’ market. The nutty sweetness and slightly pebbly texture of the crust matched up with the soft and tangy onions and the silky-sweet squash in a way that I was sure a nonsprouted crust wouldn’t have.
Over the following weeks I found it easy to incorporate sprouts into meals I was already cooking and eating. I added sprouted lentils, mung beans, and adzuki beans, all of which have the crisp texture of fresh shell beans, to a vegetable stir-fry. I rolled them in nori with fresh vegetables and a savory almond-miso spread. I pureed sprouted chickpeas and shaped them into patties, which I fried in olive oil and drizzled with a tangy yogurt sauce. I added handfuls of sprouts to sandwiches, to buttercrunch lettuce salads with grapefruit and avocado—I even rolled them up in tortillas with rice and beans.
Ultimately, it wasn’t the hard science about the health benefits of sprouts, their perky little tails and leaves, or even the easy way they insinuated themselves into my everyday cooking that won me over. It was the ritual of waking up every morning and rinsing my sprouts, a surprisingly satisfying activity that gave me a creative connection with my food that went beyond cooking or preparing it.
"It’s the miracle of life, over and over," said Shanti, who laughed understandingly when I told her how I discovered how much I liked tending my jar. "Whatever energy we put into something affects what we create. When you grow sprouts, you have the opportunity to put your energy into your food from the moment you start soaking the seeds. It’s a great opportunity to put that energy toward being grateful for the water, for the food—and that affects how you feel about them."
Those few minutes twice a day attending to the living, growing sprouts that would become sustenance—in a space no bigger than my kitchen counter—was just the thing to add life to my food.