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What are microgreens?

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Kathy Kolasa took this photos at a farmers market near Magog, Quebec, in early October.

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Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Q: A friend is encouraging me to eat microgreens? I don’t want to look dumb, what are they are and are they good for me?  MKK, Greenville

A: Don’t feel bad. Even with my interest, experience and training in food science and nutrition there seem to be new foods and ingredients in our market place all the time. I just got a gardening catalogue featuring microgreen growing kits for kale, arugula and radish. They were advertised as “nature’s nutritional powerhouse.” Seth Smith an ECU dietetic student wanted to answer your question. Here is what he wants you to know.

Microgreens have been getting a lot of attention lately and for good reason. But what exactly are they and where did they come from? Microgreens are pretty much the babies of different vegetables and herbs you are likely already familiar with. Some of these include broccoli, radishes, cabbage, cilantro, basil, and even sunflowers. After the seeds of these plants sprout and the first two leaves develop they are harvested as microgreens. Unlike edible sprouts, microgreens do not include the roots and seed of the plant. Despite their tiny size, they are also known to be full of flavor and are often eaten raw as garnishes or added to salads. While these baby plants may not look much like the mature broccoli stalks or cabbage you would see in a grocery store, they carry many of the same nutrients and cancer fighting antioxidants.

Pound for pound microgreens have more of certain nutrients to offer than the full grown vegetables they would become if not harvested so early. However, some nutritional aspects between them are pretty similar like the amounts of carbohydrates, protein, fat, and overall calories they provide. According to a study by Idaho State University, the mineral content of broccoli microgreens was found to be much higher than the same amount of mature broccoli stalks. This study showed that broccoli microgreens had a higher amount of the important minerals, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, manganese, zinc, iron, calcium, and sodium. Another study showed red cabbage microgreens had six times more vitamin C and sixty nine times more vitamin K than the same amount of mature cabbage. These vitamins and minerals among other nutrients are key to building a strong healthy body. Unfortunately, over two thirds of the Earth’s population does not get enough iron and zinc in their diet. This is an issue even in developed countries, so growing and eating microgreens could be a huge step forward in helping all kinds of people get the nutrients they need for a high quality of life. Don’t expect to get full eating them though. About 1 ounce or a handful of microgreens gives you fewer than 10 calories. They add nutrition, flavor and interest when you top your vegetables or pizza or salads with them. You can add to sushi, wraps or sandwiches.

More good news is that microgreens are easy to grow. They can even be grown at home and since it only takes a week or two to have a fresh batch of them, you can grow enough of these nutritionally packed plants to last all year. Also, no fertilizers or pesticides are needed since the seeds have enough energy and nutrition to fuel the plant’s growth up to the microgreen stage. Growing your own microgreens is a great way to meet your nutrition needs and maximize your health without emptying your wallet buying loads of all organic vegetables. However, if you don’t have the time or resources to grow them, you can still pick them up in a store like Trader Joe’s although they are known to be pricey. If you grow them you can usually get two harvests out of one set of seeds. Clip the with your scissors and don’t let them get too tall or they will be tough. You can find You Tube Videos on growing, harvesting and eating microgreens.

It turns out microgreens don’t only benefit our health, but also the health of the planet.

With fresh water shortages across the globe and overuse of fossil fuels, it is clear that solutions to these problems are needed. Large scale production of crops is one of the leading causes of these problems and we need to work to make producing our food as efficient as possible. The mature vegetables you see when you walk into the grocery store require a lot more water to be produced than microgreens. Once again with the case of broccoli, it can take about two hundred times more water to produce mature broccoli than broccoli microgreens. Fossil fuel use is another main concern. In fact, vegetables are often transported thousands of miles to get to your local grocery store. By growing your own microgreens at home, you could cut out the need for your food to make such a long journey and reduce carbon dioxide gas emissions.

Microgreens may just be the food of the future. These nutrition packed, water saving, greenhouse gas reducing plants give a new meaning to the term “superfood.”

Professor emeritus Kathy Kolasa, a registered dietitian, nutritionist and Ph.D, is an Affiliate Professor in the Brody School of Medicine at ECU. Contact her at kolasaka@ecu.edu.

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