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Food | Gardening

Microgreens vs Sprouts: Similarities and Key Differences You Should Know

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Many people confuse microgreens with sprouts, and it’s easy to see why. Both are harvested before the plant is matured. Both are lauded for their nutritional-rich properties. And homegrowers have taken to both sprouts and microgreens in hoards as they don’t require a lot of space or fancy equipment to get started. However, there are a few key differences.

Sprouts are the germinated seed of a plant, and are eaten whole: seed, root, and shoot. Microgreens are harvested just above the soil line and the seed leaves (cotyledons), the first true leaves, and stems are eaten.

Microgreens vs sprouts—let’s explore a few key differences and similarities between microgreens and sprouts.

What exactly are microgreens and sprouts?

A sprout is a germinated seed. You can sprout the seeds of a variety of vegetables. Some common sprouts include broccoli, mung beans, and alfalfa to name just a few. Sprout seeds are soaked in water in containers without any soil. After a few days, the seeds have sprouted and are ready to eat.

If you were to picture a timeline of a plant’s germination, the sprout would come first, followed by the microgreen, and finally the mature, true leaves of the plant emerge.

Microgreens are the young shoots of a plant which include the cotyledons (the very first seed leaves), along with the stems and leaves. Microgreens are harvested when they are around 2 inches (5.1 centimeters) tall, before they reach full maturity.

Microgreens are typically grown in shallow containers filled with soil (although soilless options are available too). After one to three weeks, the microgreens are ready for harvesting. They are cut close to the soil line; the roots are edible, but typically not eaten.

There are many varieties of microgreens from edible flowers, herbs, and vegetables. A few popular microgreens include arugula, buckwheat, wheatgrass, sunflower, and cabbage.

Both microgreens and sprouts are small, but packed with flavor. They also lend a nice texture to dishes. A small handful can liven up a salad, sandwich, omelette, or serve as a key ingredient in smoothies..

A sprout is a germinated seed. Microgreens are the young shoots of a plant.
Sprouts grow in the dark. Microgreens like the sun.
Sprouts don't require any soil. Most people grow microgreens using soil.

Growing conditions and maintenance

Microgreens are sun-lovers. They require plenty of sunlight to grow (or indoor grow lights if a good natural source isn’t available, or if you’re planning to ramp up production).

Typically, you plant microgreen seeds in rich potting soil or compost (although some growers prefer to use soilless options or hydroponic growing mats). There are many different types of growing containers you can use from growing trays, to DIY shallow containers you find at home with drainage holes poked in.

Microgreens maintenance is easy-peasy. Just keep soil moist by misting daily, or as needed.

While most people grow microgreens indoors, they can also grow outside in a garden bed from late spring to early fall in milder climates.

Sprouts on the other hand do just fine in low-light conditions. This is a benefit for those wanting to grow their own sprouts at home and perhaps live in an apartment where a sunny windowsill isn’t available.

Sprouts are soaked in an enclosed container such as a mason jar with a mesh lid (to allow for drainage). They don’t require any type of soil to grow. Sprouts germinate through a combination of soaking in water plus warmth and humidity generated within the growing container.

To care for your sprouts, rinse with water and allow the container to drain at least twice a day. 

Growing times

In terms of growing times, sprouts win. While all varieties of sprouting seeds and microgreens vary, most sprouts are ready to eat within three to five days.

Microgreens take a bit longer and are ready to be harvested in one to two weeks. This is just a general guideline however as some growers prefer to let their microgreens grow longer, up to four or five weeks.

Microgreens that are allowed to grow longer have altered texture and taste, less tender and stronger flavor. 

Food safety

Unfortunately sprouts have earned a bad reputation when it comes to food safety. A report from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) states that from 1996 to 2018, “contaminated sprouts were associated with 50 outbreaks, which together resulted in more than 2,600 cases of foodborne illness.” 

Salmonella and E.coli are the most common types of foodborne illnesses from improperly handled sprouts. The FDA has issued stricter guidelines for sprout growers to adhere to reduce the risk of food poisoning. 

Why are sprouts so prone to developing foodborne illnesses? It has to do with the sprout growing process which involves dark, warm and humid conditions making it a breeding ground for harmful bacteria.

Microgreens on the other hand grow like most other vegetables in soil and aren’t exposed to the warm temperatures and humidity that make sprouts so susceptible to bad bacteria.

Having grown sprouts at home for many years, we’ve never personally experienced any type of food poisoning. This is not to say that homegrown sprouts can’t develop harmful bacteria—they definitely can if not handled properly. But you can imagine that it would be much more difficult to do quality control over large batches of sprouts rather than just a few small jars for personal use.

To stay on the safe side certain people should avoid eating raw sprouts including pregnant women, very young children, the elderly, or people who are immunocompromised. Cooking sprouts can kill most of the harmful bacteria. The downside is that cooking also diminishes its nutrient contents.

Which is healthier: microgreens vs sprouts

Both microgreens and sprouts are packed with nutrients and antioxidants. Rich in protein, vitamins C and K, as well as magnesium, folate, phosphorus, and manganese, you really can’t go wrong with either. 

While I’m not a nutritionist or doctor, the consensus among debaters on the web seem to tip the scale towards microgreens. There are several arguments supporting this:

  • Nutrients are absorbed through soil. Since sprouts are germinated only in water while microgreens are grown in rich soil or compost, it’s believed that microgreens absorb nutrients from the soil. Some growers enrich their soil with added nutrients as well.
  • Cotyledons are full of nutrients. The cotyledon stage of plant growth that microgreens undergo is a unique time when the plant is about to begin  photosynthesis. The cotyledons (seed leaves) are accessing vital nutrients from the seed in order to kickstart photosynthesis. Many cotyledons are harvested with microgreens and are bursting with nutrients. 
  • Less risk of foodborne illnesses. As we mentioned earlier, sprouts have the added risk of developing foodborne illnesses while microgreens are pretty safe.
  • Slightly more fiber. Microgreens in general contain a wee bit more fiber than sprouts.

Studies have shown that microgreens contain a higher concentration of nutrients than their mature counterparts. So eating broccoli microgreens versus a fully-grown broccoli for example would provide more nutrients. 

The USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) studied 25 common varieties of microgreens and found them to have about five times the amount of vitamins and carotenoids than the leaves of the same mature plant.

The bottom line is that both sprouts and microgreens are healthy (with microgreens perhaps having a slight edge). We could all benefit from a diet of more greens though, right?

How long do microgreens and sprouts last?

Both microgreens and sprouts need to be refrigerated and have a fairly short shelf life compared to other longer-lasting veggies like carrots. There’s also a range in shelf life amongst different varieties of microgreens and sprouts.

Sprouts tend to become slimy after a few days. The UK’s National Health Service(NHS) recommends that raw sprouts be consumed within two days.I’m assuming they’re referring to store-bought sprouts which need to factor in the transportation times. Personally, we’ve kept homegrown broccoli sprouts in an aerated container in the fridge for up to four days, but use your judgment. Throw out anything that looks wilted, brown, or slimy.

Microgreens have a similar short shelf life of up to several days, depending on the variety. However with proper storage, the shelf life of microgreens can be extended. Researchers at the U.S. Agricultural Research Service (ARS) experimented with various packaging that creates the right balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Experimenting with different packaging membranes, researchers were able to extend the shelf life of buckwheat microgreens up to 14 days. 

To properly store microgreens, wrap them in a clean, damp paper towel and place inside a ventilated container.

Conclusion

So which is better, microgreens vs sprouts? If you’re in a rush and want fresh greens pronto, sprouts are the answer. If you don’t have a natural source of sunlight at home, sprouts are also the way to go.

If you want tender greens for salads, smoothies, and all around versatility, you can’t go wrong with microgreens.

It’s a tough call. I would say there’s value in both and that if you have the time to try growing both for yourself. Just remember to follow best practices when handling microgreens, and especially sprouts.

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  1. U.S. Food & Drug Administration, FDA Issues Draft Guidance for Reducing Food Safety Hazards in the Production of Seed for Sprouting, https://www.fda.gov/food/cfsan-constituent-updates/fda-issues-draft-guidance-reducing-food-safety-hazards-production-seed-sprouting. Accessed June 2020.
  2. Britannica, Cotyledon, https://www.britannica.com/science/cotyledon-plant-anatomy. Acccessed June 2020.
  3. USDA, AgResearch Magazine, “Specialty Greens Pack a Nutritional Punch.” https://agresearchmag.ars.usda.gov/2014/jan/greens. Accessed June 2020.


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