Sprouts are not just decorative and crunchy additions to salads and stir-frys, they are a bona fide superfood, medicine and anti-aging supplement. They are a supremely healthy snack and a valuable source of complete protein. The best part is that they are easy to grow all year round, dont take up much space and they are cheap. They taste good too.

The humble sprout may not sound as sexy as chia, acai, goji, wakame, lucuma or all those other hard to pronounce, hard to get, expensive and exotic products, but locked into that little white tail is a world of benefit.

What is a sprout? Technically, it is the first tender shoot sent out from a seed in response to the right amount of moisture and the right temperature. If we were to regard the seed as the infant and the plant it births as the adult, the sprout would be the child, bursting with energy and vitality. For the purposes of this article, well call a sprout a vegetable, whether it comes from a nut, grain, pulse or legume. The sprout stage is when the all the components of a plant that are beneficial to humans are at their peak.

This interim phase is where all the potential of the seed erupts into life and something quite magical begins to occur. The nutrients in the seed take off like a rocket, both in quantity and quality. The water content increases substantially, the seed expands in size, new nutrients are created and anti-nutrients either decrease to insignificant amounts or are neutralized.

Natures nutrient factory

A sprout is like a miniature factory where all the elements are transformed into simpler and more usable forms to feed the growing plant. The complex protein becomes amino acids, the fats are turned into essential fatty acids, the starches into sugars and the minerals become chelated (bound to proteins). This process essentially makes sprouts a perfect type of pre-digested food for humans that are easy to assimilate.

When a seed is dry and dormant, the enzymes are kept in check by enzyme inhibitors, which allows the seed to survive in a state of suspended animation until the right conditions for germination are met. Some of these enzyme inhibitors, like phytic acid and trypsin inhibitors, interfere with mineral and protein absorption when consumed. They can lead to nutritional deficiencies, digestive problems and illness. Methods like heating, grinding and cooking can deactivate these inhibitors but these methods also kill digestive enzymes.

Its the enzymes baby!

Soaking and sprouting seeds, nuts, grains and legumes takes care of the inhibitors whilst leaving the enzymes intact. This is probably the secret to the amazing health effects of the sprout the enzyme content. Enzymes dont get too much press but without them, none of the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients you ingested would matter because you wouldnt be able to do anything with them. Your metabolism would grind to a halt or progress so slowly that you would die. Enzymes speed up reactions in the body by a million-fold so that instead of taking years, they take milliseconds to occur. Every biochemical process requires enzymes.

Where do these enzymes come from? Your body manufactures metabolic enzymes and digestive enzymes but we should also obtain enzymes from the food we eat in order to digest that food. One of the reasons why fresh vegetables and fruit are so healthy is their enzyme content. Cooked food, junk food and chemically processed food is called dead because it is lacking in enzymes. In order to digest this type of food, the body has to rob enzymes that are needed elsewhere, like in organs and glands.

Conventionally grown fruit and vegetables have fewer enzymes than the organic variety. The further produce travels and the longer it sits on the shelf, the more depleted it becomes. Enter the sprout, the most enzymatic-rich vegetable on the planet. Sprouts contain 10 to 100 times the enzymes of fresh fruit and vegetables. As far as food goes, sprouts are as about as fresh, alive and organic as you can get. Even after they have been harvested, sprouts continue to grow and their vitamin content increases. No other food can claim to do this.

A side of magnesium and zinc

Enzymes dont act alone, they need coenzymes to trigger their activity. Particularly important are magnesium, required for over 300 enzyme reactions, and zinc. Of course sprouts come with a generous helping of both, chemically joined to amino acids so they are easy for our bodies to process.

Quality over Quantity

The vitamin, mineral, protein and enzyme content of sprouts increases by between 25 and 4,000 percent, depending on the sprout and the nutrient. Sprouts are chock full of a variety of vitamins, including vitamins C, E, K, carotenoid A, and B complex, as well as loads of minerals like calcium, magnesium, zinc, potassium and iron. They also contain trace minerals like vanadium, selenium, manganese, tritium and chromium, not to mention chlorophyll, phytochemicals, antioxidants and fiber.

Some people will argue that as seeds, nuts, legumes and grains are so small to begin with and contain such small amounts of nutrients quantity-wise, even if sprouting increases them significantly, the resulting nutrients will still be a minor addition to the diet.

Sprouts might be small in size but they are nutritional giants because all the good stuff is perfectly packaged for us to digest and absorb. You can take a bucket full of vitamin and mineral supplements but if they are not in a form that is easy for your body to recognize and use, they wont achieve much. It is hard to upstage Mother Nature; she has had millions of years to practice. Dollar for dollar, pound for pound and calorie for calorie, you cant beat sprouts for value.

The King of Sprouts

Just as a wide variety of vegetables are encouraged for good health, a variety of sprouts are encouraged for the same reason. All sprouts are marvelous but rye, wheat, mung bean, lentils and alfalfa are among the best. Lately, however, broccoli sprouts have been getting an awful lot of attention and they appear to be the king of sprouts.

We all know that eating cruciferous vegetables like broccoli on a regular basis is like anti-cancer therapy but it turns out that consuming a mere ounce of broccoli sprouts is equivalent to getting two pounds of broccoli down your throat.

The secret sauce in broccoli is glucoraphanin, found in concentrations 20 to 50 times greater in the broccoli sprout than in the mature plant. Glucoraphanin is metabolized into the phase 2 protein-inducer sulforaphane. Phase 2 protein inducers are like antioxidants on steroids, mopping up free radicals and ramping up the anti-inflammatory capacity of cells. They are not only chemoprotective but reduce the risk of atherosclerosis and coronary heart disease and help our bodies to excrete toxic pollutants.

Back to the future

Researchers from the University of Saskatchewan did a fascinating study with pregnant rats. They fed them with broccoli sprouts and found that the mothers health improved. No surprises there but the health effect transferred to their offspring, even into adulthood, whether they ate broccoli sprouts or never got near them again. The research team leader, Bernhard Juurlink, said: It appears weve instituted a permanent change in the offspring, the question now is how.

This is powerful stuff and we dont really need to know how, we just need to get sprouting.