The New Super Food: Why Microgreens Are All the Rage

Personal Health

You may have seen microgreens delicately adorning a fancy entrée in a restaurant, but maybe hadn't heard the name before. Tiny greens, mini-lettuces and baby kales aren't just garnish anymore; they are one of the hot, new superfoods. Thanks to their robust nutritional benefits, microgreens have been steadily increasing in popularity for growers and consumers alike, and we've only begun to understand how these tiny-leafed plants can pack so much energy and nutrients in each leaf.

Microgreens are aptly named micro because of their size, as the plants are harvested when they are one to three inches in height. They are actually the seedling stage for a variety of plants. Popular microgreens include kale, red cabbage, amaranth and broccoli. Other microgreens include purple haze radish, purslane or magenta spreen. Because of their size they're typically grown inside greenhouses year-round.

Zhenlei Xiao, a post-doc research associate at the University of Maryland, has been researching microgreens since 2010. Back then you could not find scientific studies on the nutritional qualities of microgreens, which prompted her and the USDA Agricultural Research Service to conduct the first studies on microgreen nutrition. The findings were eventually published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

“All of the [nutritional numbers] were coming from growers or food providers,” Xiao told AlterNet. “But when I searched all the scientific databases there was no scientific data available.”

Working for the USDA at the University of Maryland with program leader Gene Lester and food technologist Yaguang Luo, Xiao began the slow process of sourcing microgreens, which was not an easy task at the time. They weren’t readily stocked at grocers, and growers would only sell directly to distributors. Eventually she collaborated with a grower to study 25 microgreen varieties. The results of her study amazed her.

“We were really, really surprised when we got the data,” she said. “Take cilantro microgreens​, for example, with mature cilantro greens. We found some of the nutrients are surprisingly higher than the mature plants and not only in one specific nutrients, many of the nutrients in many microgreens contained much higher nutrient levels compared to their mature ones.”

In fact, the microgreens contained four to six times the vitamin concentration of their mature plants. The Vitamin C concentration of red cabbage was “6-fold higher than previously published data for the mature red cabbage and 2.6 times greater than that recorded in the USDA National Nutrient Database.” Micro cilantro leaves contained three times more beta-carotene than fully developed cilantro leaves. Wasabi, green basil, pea tendrils, and garnet amaranth microgreens also contained high amounts of beta-carotene. Four of the 25 microgreens had comparable amounts of Vitamin K as mature leaf spinach and 18 had Vitamin K densities equal to or higher than broccoli.

Xiao compared the same weighted amount of microgreens to their adult counterparts and found several cases where the microgreens were packed with vitamins, often beating their mature-plant self. Lighter microgreens in a yellow hue, like popcorn shoots, are yellow because they are grown in the dark. Although pretty on a plate, they have less nutrients than if they were grown in sunlight. Xiao suggests eating microgreens with bright colors to get the most phytonutrients. Dark red, violets and green microgreens are all excellent.

So why are microgreens so packed with nutrients? The reasons are still unclear and more research needs to be done, says Xiao. However, she has some ideas as to why this might be. One is that during the germination stage the cell division is much greater, thus increasing the amount of nutrients in one leaf. It's almost as if the microgreens are a concentrated version of their adult selves. Another idea is that during the germination stage nutrients are just beginning to be activated and released. During her research Xiao began eating small-sized apples, often ruminating on the two theories.

Xiao cautions, however, against eating only microgreens. You can’t eat a handful of microgreens in place of a salad because, unfortunately, you won't find enough fiber in microgreens. On the bright side, microgreens have become a good alternative to sprouts, which​ in recent years have caused a host of contamination issues. In Germany and France, 50 people died from consuming fenugreek sprouts, prompting the U.S. government to warn against adding raw ​sprouts to your restaurant dish.

If you're interested in eating microgreens you can purchase them locally or grow them yourself. Unlike sprouts, most microgreens require soil to grow in and unlike herbs, once you cut them at their early stage, that's it—you'll need to start over again. Most importantly, microgreens need light. Without sunlight, the microgreens will inevitably lose some of their phytonutrient qualities, as Xiao discovered.

Like any vegetable, microgreens are best at the harvest stage. After the short harvesting time of 7-14 days (some can be up to 30 days) you'll want to eat your microgreens right away. Microgreens lose more of their nutritional punch with each day after they're harvested. As a solution, stagger the days that​ you harvest and plant your microgreens. That way, you can have a bunch of microgreens on one day, and your next batch will be ready the next day.

You can go the obvious route of using microgreens in salad, but they're also great in stir-fries, sandwiches or rice bowls. Whatever you do, attempt to use them as the main meal and not a garnish. Not only are microgreen nutrients dense, they are also packed with flavor. If you're so inclined, drop a bunch into your smoothies. Lastly, these plants can be fickle, so although they need light to grow, once they're cut you'll want to harness their nutrient power by storing them in a dark container.

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