Many people regard sprouts as nutritional powerhouses.
For starters, they’re rich in many nutrients. They’re also said to improve your digestion and blood sugar levels, and possibly even fend off heart disease.
However, sprouts are also frequently linked to cases of food poisoning, which makes people question whether the potential benefits are worth the risks.
This article takes a comprehensive look at the benefits and dangers of eating raw sprouts to help you decide whether they should make an appearance on your plate.
Sprouts are seeds that have germinated and become very young plants.
This germination process usually begins with the seeds being soaked for several hours.
The soaked seeds are then exposed to the right combination of temperature and moisture, and allowed to grow for two to seven days.
The end product is generally a sprout measuring 1/8–2 inches (2–5 cm) long.
Many different types of seeds can be sprouted. Here is a list of the most common types of sprouts available on the market:
- Bean and pea sprouts: Such as lentil, adzuki, garbanzo, soybean, mung bean, black bean, kidney bean, green pea and snow pea sprouts.
- Sprouted grains: Such as brown rice, buckwheat, amaranth, kamut, quinoa and oat sprouts.
- Vegetable or leafy sprouts: Such as radish, broccoli, beet, mustard green, clover, cress and fenugreek sprouts.
- Nut and seed sprouts: Such as almond, radish seed, alfalfa seed, pumpkin seed, sesame seed or sunflower seed sprouts.
Sprouts are generally consumed raw, but may also be lightly cooked before you eat them.
Summary Sprouts are seeds that have been allowed to germinate into young plants. They are usually eaten raw and are available in a wide range of varieties.
Despite being low in calories, sprouts are a rich source of nutrients and beneficial plant compounds. Their vitamin and mineral content varies based on the variety.
However, generally speaking, the sprouting process increases nutrient levels, making sprouts richer in protein, folate, magnesium, phosphorus, manganese and vitamins C and K than un-sprouted plants (1, 2, 3).
For instance, several studies show that sprouting helps increase protein content. Sprouts also tend to contain higher levels of essential amino acids, with certain individual amino acids increasing by as much as 30% (4, 5, 6).
In addition, the proteins in sprouts may also be easier to digest. This is likely due to the sprouting process, which appears to reduce the amount of antinutrients — compounds that decrease your body’s ability to absorb nutrients from the plant — by up to 87% (6).
Moreover, studies show that foods made from sprouted beans may also be more nutritious.
For example, tofu and soy milk made from sprouted soybeans appear to contain 7–13% more protein, 12–24% less fat and 56–81% less antinutrients than tofu and soymilk made from un-sprouted soybeans (10).
Summary Sprouting tends to increase nutrient levels in the grain, legume, vegetable, nut or seed being sprouted. Sprouts also contain lower levels of antinutrients, making it easier for your body to absorb all the nutrients they contain.
Sprouts may also help you keep your blood sugar under control.
Another theory is that sprouts may have an increased ability to regulate the activity of the amylase enzyme, which the body uses to properly break down and digest sugars (12).
One study followed a small group of people with type 2 diabetes. Half ate 60 grams of lentil sprouts per day along with their normal diet, while the other group simply consumed their normal diet.
By the end of the eight-week study, those eating the sprouts had experienced a 10% reduction in levels of hemoglobin A1c, a marker of blood sugar control. On the other hand, these levels increased by 12% in the control group (13).
In another study, people with type 2 diabetes consumed a powdered broccoli sprout supplement for eight weeks, resulting in lower blood insulin levels and insulin resistance.
The authors attributed these improvements to the high amounts of the antioxidant sulforaphane in the supplement (14).
Despite these encouraging results, it’s worth noting that few studies appear to exist on this topic. More are needed before strong conclusions can be made.
Summary Sprouts may help people with type 2 diabetes better control their blood sugar. However, more studies are needed to determine why this is and whether these results also apply to people without diabetes.
Sprouts may help you digest your foods more easily.
Studies show that when seeds are sprouted, the amount of fiber they contain increases and becomes more available (11).
For instance, in one study, grains allowed to sprout for five days contained up to 133% more fiber than un-sprouted grains (15).
In another, germinating beans until their sprouts were 5 mm long increased their total fiber content by up to 226% (11).
In addition, sprouting appears to reduce the amount of gluten found in grains, which may make them easier to digest, especially for people sensitive to gluten (17).
Finally, sprouted beans, grains, vegetables, nuts and seeds contain lower amounts of antinutrients than their un-sprouted counterparts. This makes it easier for the body to absorb nutrients during digestion (6).
Summary Sprouts tend to contain higher amounts of insoluble fiber, which can ease digestion and reduce the likelihood of constipation. Sprouts may also contain lower levels of gluten and antinutrients, further improving the digestion process.
Including sprouts in your daily diet may also have benefits for your heart.
That’s mainly because sprouts may reduce risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood cholesterol levels.
Researchers also note that rats given sprouts may benefit from blood cholesterol improvements similar to those resulting from taking the cholesterol-lowering drug atorvastatin (18).
Similar results have been observed in humans. In one study, 39 overweight and obese people with type 2 diabetes were split into two groups. One was given 60 grams of lentil sprouts per day, whereas the other received no sprouts.
At the end of the eight-week study, the group that had consumed the lentil sprouts had 12% higher levels of “good” HDL cholesterol and 75–84% lower levels of triglycerides and “bad” LDL cholesterol, compared to the control group (19).
In another small study, people with type 2 diabetes who were given 10 grams of broccoli sprout powder per day for four weeks benefited from an 18.7% decrease in triglyceride levels and significantly higher levels of “good” HDL cholesterol.
In comparison, those given lower amounts of broccoli sprout powder or none did not benefit from significant changes to their levels of triglycerides or HDL cholesterol (20).
Finally, another group of researchers reported that eating 100 grams of fresh broccoli sprouts per day for one week decreased LDL and total cholesterol in men and increased HDL cholesterol in women (21).
Although these results appear promising, few studies have been done on this topic and more research is needed before strong conclusions can be made.
Summary Sprouts may improve heart health by lowering “bad” LDL cholesterol, total cholesterol and blood triglyceride levels, while increasing “good” HDL cholesterol.
One issue often linked to eating sprouts is the risk of food poisoning. The fact that sprouts are generally consumed raw or only slightly cooked adds to this risk.
The reason raw sprouts are especially risky is because they must be grown in warm, humid conditions in which harmful bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella also happen to thrive.
Over the last two decades, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has linked 48 outbreaks of foodborne illness to raw or lightly cooked sprouts (22).
If food poisoning occurs, symptoms may appear 12–72 hours after eating the sprouts, and can include diarrhea, stomach cramps and vomiting (23).
Such symptoms are rarely life-threatening. However, children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with generally weaker immune systems are recommended to thoroughly cook sprouts or avoid them completely.
The following tips should help you further reduce the risk of contamination:
- Buy chilled sprouts: Only buy fresh sprouts that have been properly refrigerated.
- Check their appearance: Avoid purchasing or eating sprouts with a strong smell or slimy appearance.
- Store in the fridge: At home, keep sprouts refrigerated at temperatures under 48°F (8°C).
- Wash your hands: Always wash your hands properly before handling raw sprouts.
Summary Sprouts are prone to contamination with harmful bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella. Children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with weak immune systems should consider avoiding raw sprouts.
Sprouts can be eaten in a variety of ways and are easily incorporated into a variety of dishes. For instance, you can eat them raw in a sandwich or tossed into a salad.
Sprouts are also easy to add to warm meals such as rice dishes, stir-fries, omelets, soups or freshly made burger patties.
Other interesting uses for sprouts include blending them into smoothies and pancake batters, or grinding them into a paste to spread on bread, crackers or vegetables.
Summary Sprouts can be eaten raw or cooked. They are also easy to add to a wide variety of meals and snacks.
Sprouts are very nutritious. They may also offer a variety of health benefits, including easier digestion, improved blood sugar levels and a lower risk of heart disease.
However, keep in mind that they are also associated with a risk of food poisoning.
That said, for the majority of healthy people, the benefits of eating raw or lightly cooked sprouts likely outweigh the risks.