Wednesday 15 December 2021

What Are Microgreens? Everything You Need to Know About the Nutritious Garnish

 When it's the dead of winter, and outside the window, gardens and parks have withered to a faded tan. Only evergreens remain verdant and lush. But inside, on certain kitchen counters and windowsills across the country, a different variety of garden continues to grow: microgreens.

After about two weeks, a small forest of radiant little leaves sprouts up from glass Tupperwares, recycled plastic containers, or flat grow trays. It’s time to take a pair of scissors, snip a crisp handful, and throw them in a salad for dinner. Bon appetite! But what are the health benefits of microgreens? And just how nutritious are they?

You may have already seen these instant gratification crops as a garnish at farm-to-table restaurants or at a friend’s dinner party. Microgreens—a marketing term used to describe the first, fully developed leaves to come out of a seed—are a flavorful vegetable that’s become an increasingly popular addition to a wide variety of dishes.

“A lot of chefs who work with trays of living microgreens can harvest them right in the restaurant kitchen,” says Francesco Di Gioia, Ph.D., an assistant professor of Vegetable Crop Science at The Pennsylvania State University. “That can also be true for consumers who are self-producing greens at home.”

Microgreen seeds can be grown indoors, sans fertilizers, and with limited light or space. They also only take a few weeks to sprout, making them some of the least fussy seedlings for excited new plant parents. But microgreens are much more than a decorative gourmet food trend. “​​In a society where people are consuming fewer vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients from food, microgreens are an easy, low-calorie addition to meals that maximize the plant's nutritional value,” says Kait Richardson, an R.D.N. at Nutrition Awareness in Orlando. Recent research by Di Gioia goes even further to suggest that these small veggies may have significant implications for nutritional security at home and abroad.

What are microgreens, anyways?

Microgreens are thought to have first appeared on the American culinary scene in the 1980s in California. Today, they are increasingly popular with at-home gardens and urban farms as a flavourful, year-round taste of summer. In 2020 alone, North America dominated the global microgreen market with a market share of nearly 50% of sales, according to the research firm DataM Intelligence.

While there are a plethora of seed options available, popular varieties include: sunflower, arugula, broccoli, lettuce, watercress, and collards.

What are the health benefits of microgreens?

Why all the hype? To start, they are powerfully flavorful, ranging from lemony to sweet to earthy to bitter. And despite their compact size, these little greens pack a serious nutritional punch.

Unlike sprouts, microgreens can be grown in sunlight, which increases their overall nutrient content, says Di Gioia. Their high nutritional density is also, in part, due to their age at harvest. “When a plant grows out, there's kind of a dilution effect. Microgreens are just-sprouted seeds, so there is a concentration of vitamins, enzymes, and minerals.”

It’s no small difference: Findings from a University of Maryland study suggested that they may contain up to 40 times the nutrients of “true leaves” on a mature plant. Evidence also indicates that even store-bought microgreens have high antioxidant content, though the exact type will depend on the species.

“Some microgreens definitely have a nutritional edge,” explains Richardson. “For example, broccoli sprouts contain the highest amounts of sulforaphane, a compound with anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial benefits, while microgreens like cilantro, green daikon radish, and red cabbage have the highest amounts of vitamins C, K, E, carotenoids, and lutein.”

Should you grow your own?

As the onset of COVID 19 kept people indoors and disrupted food distribution across the country, Americans bought seeds for at-home gardens in record numbers. Microgreens became a viable option for those living in cramped apartments or homes without outdoor space. “I think the COVID-19 pandemic revealed to people that a lot of the food we find at the store comes from far away,” Di Gioia observes. “If there’s a disruption to that chain, it makes people sensitive to what they eat and how they buy produce.”

The pandemic has given new resonance to Di Gioia’s most recent study, which was conducted as part of the project “Food Resilience in the Face of Catastrophic Global Events.” Di Gioia and the international team of researchers found that microgreens can be grown in a variety of soilless production systems with or without artificial lights. The implications of their work are expansive.

With a short growth cycle and minimal need for fertilizers, these vegetables can offer solutions to areas that are considered food deserts, still a significant problem in the U.S. Another perk of microgreens’ small size and simple agricultural methods, from Di Gioia: These veggies can address particular dietary and nutritional needs. “When we talk about nutrition, we need to have a variety of nutrients and crops. With microgreens, it’s possible to easily get a mix of vegetable species that provide different minerals and vitamins.”

Can you imagine fresh greens in space? Or grow kits sent out as a short-term solution to hurricanes or earthquakes? These are just a few of the possibilities these scientists are exploring for our future.

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