What Are Microgreens and What Are The Health Benefits?

by Lettuce Be | Last Updated: 09/16/2021

Microgreens are tiny plant seedlings that are often used to add color and flavor to a meal. Smaller than regular greens, even baby greens, they have grown in popularity, particularly in fine dining circles.

Microgreens are not particular to one plant. Radish, cabbage, mustard, parsley, beet leaves, celery, and cilantro are all common microgreens. Many types of microgreens are high in nutrient content. Even though people don’t eat them in large quantities, they still have a much higher concentration of nutrients than fully mature plants.

Microgreens – How Are They Grown?

what are microgreensPlanting microgreen seeds in flats or small pots are harvested around two to four weeks later. They can be grown indoors or out. Whenever the plants produce small true leaves, the microgreens are ready to harvest. The stems are either cut just above the soil or pulled from the soil and washed with clean water. These plants are harvested and distributed to a few restaurants and specialty stores.

At farmers’ markets or some grocery stores, you might be able to find microgreens, but they only last a week under ideal circumstances, so they won’t be shipped far and wide and you’d have to eat them right away. Perhaps growing them at home would be a better solution.

Microgreens can be grown right at home in a backyard or house with sufficient sunny light available. Common varieties of microgreens don’t take up much space, and only need a few inches of potting soil. Plant the seeds somewhat densely compared to full-grown plants, and mist the soil medium regularly with a spray bottle to keep it moist.

Microgreens Are Not Sprouts

Raw sprouts, such as alfalfa sprouts and bean sprouts, have been around for a long time (although it is harder to find these days due to outbreaks of foodborne illness due to consuming uncooked sprouts). Even though microgreens and sprouts may look similar, there are some differences between the two.

The main difference is how they are grown. Popular varieties of microgreens are planted and grown in soil, just like their regular garden counterparts. For sprouts, the seeds are germinated in water or wet bags, usually in warm dark places, for a couple of days until they sprout. After that, the sprouts are ready for packing and shipping to stores.

The problem is that sprouts are grown in a way that increases the risk of bacterial contamination, which can lead to foodborne illnesses. Microgreens, however, are not grown that way, and hence they do not have the same risk. As with any raw veggies or greens, these young shoots must still be handled properly for food safety issues.

When sprouts are packaged, they include the seed, roots, stems, and tiny undeveloped leaves. Microgreens can be harvested after they grow their first true set of leaves, and any roots may be left on. It’s usually easier to serve them by slicing them off from the stem.

Nutrition of Microgreens

On average, microgreens contain much greater levels of vitamins and antioxidants than their full-grown counterparts. Among 25 varieties of microgreens examined, researchers found that red cabbage had the highest vitamin C content, garnet amaranth had the highest vitamin K1 content, and green daikon radish microgreens had the highest vitamin E content. Also, microgreens of cilantro contained the most lutein and zeaxanthin carotenoids.

In another study, mineral content for fully grown lettuces, and lettuce microgreens, was compared. The microgreens had more calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc, selenium, molybdenum, and manganese than mature vegetables.

A few brands of microgreens are listed on the United States Department of Agriculture Food Composition Databases, but more research is needed to determine their nutritional content. As an example, 100 grams of New Day Farms sunflower and basil microgreen mix has 25 calories, 2 grams of protein, 4 grams of carbohydrates, 2 grams of fiber, 80 milligrams of calcium, and almost 14 milligrams of iron.

Microgreens’ Potential Health Benefits

It’s hard to say that eating a wide array of microgreens will produce health benefits since there isn’t much research available for microgreens beyond the nutritional content.

No human studies are looking at the nutritional analysis of microgreens, but one lab study found that overweight mice were given a high-fat diet and red cabbage microgreens had lower LDL-cholesterol. In contrast, they gained less weight than mice fed high-fat diets alone or in combination with mature red cabbage. These findings suggest microgreens can protect against the risk of heart disease.

It’s a long stretch from animal studies to humans, but it does make sense that microgreens from plants that contain healthful phytochemicals, like those found in red cabbage, might have similar health benefits.

Moreover, another study found microgreen plants from the Brassica species, including red cabbage, red mustard, purple mustard, purple kohlrabi, contain more complex and a greater variety of polyphenols than mature plants.

The Best Way to Use Microgreens at Home

Microgreens may be available only in specialty markets or in specialty stores, but expect to pay at least 30 dollars a pound. Some of the more popular ones include arugula, beet greens, basil, chard, carrot, mustard, cress, amaranth, spinach, and mustard. They are filled with stronger flavors so just a tiny bit goes a long way in a variety of dishes.

Choose microgreens that look fresh and keep them in the refrigerator. Use them up within a few days since they won’t last long. Use microgreens in several different ways depending on the meal you are cooking. Choose microgreens with the colors and flavors that suit your taste buds.

As an example, arugula microgreens have a peppery taste. Beet microgreens have a bitter taste but add wonderful reddish color to a dish. Carrot microgreens taste sweet and chard is both beautiful and mild. Radish microgreens have a similar spicy flavor to a fully grown radish. Use microgreens in place of regular lettuce in a sandwich or wrap.

They can be used to replace some of your favorite herbs or made into a salad by combining a cup or two of microgreens with shredded carrots, chopped nuts, and tangy vinaigrette. Alternatively, they can be added to a hot pizza or roasted vegetables.

The Takeaway

The addition of fresh microgreens to any dish provides an excellent way to increase your vitamin and mineral intake. Because they have an intense flavor, only a small amount of microgreens are usually needed. A microgreen salad may not replace edible vegetables for the necessary nutrient levels, but it still packs quite a nutritional punch.