Is it really possible that sprouts are hip again?
Maybe that's a bit much to ask of a sprout. But they are hot. And they look – and taste – nothing like what you remember.
In the 30 or so years since they seemed to rule the sandwich and salad bar scenes, sprouts have, er. grown. They aren't just frilly green tendrils anymore. They are "sprouted" whole-wheat bread, rye crackers, baking flour, even brown rice.
Advocates say these foods – which are made from sprouted, or germinated, grains and other seeds – are tastier and better for you. Nutrition experts paint a more nuanced picture about that latter claim, but sprouted foods nonetheless appear to be a natural food niche that is, yes, sprouting.
"It's really been kick-started in the last four or five years as our customers have been demanding raw foods and sprouted grains, pulses and legumes to add to their diet," says Errol Schweizer, Whole Food Market's senior global grocery coordinator.
Alfalfa sprouts have been a health food staple for years and mung bean sprouts are common in Asian food. But many people don't realize grains such as rice and wheat also can be sprouted through a process of soaking and draining.
As producers have caught on to this, they have unleashed a torrent of sprouted foods. At Whole Foods alone, there are sprouted versions of breads, quinoa, lentils and granola.
None of this is surprising for Whole Foods, known for its organic foods selection. But more mainstream chains are offering sprouted foods, too.
The natural Asian food brand Annie Chun's says sales of its microwaveable sprouted brown rice, which is sold in large chains like Safeway, Kroger and Wegmans, grew by more than 24 percent last year.
"I think we're just at the cusp of people starting to understand what that product is and why it's a better choice," says Diana Wang, marketing director for Annie Chun's.
Sprouted food often tastes different. Sprouted brown rice, for instance, can have a softer texture and some people say it has a mild nutty flavor. Sprouted breads – there even are sprouted bagels and English muffins – tend to be denser and chewier.
But taste is just part of the attraction. Erica Kerwien, who lives in the Seattle area and blogs healthy recipes at comfybelly.com, has purchased sprouted breads, bagels and frozen pizza dough for her family. They like much of it. Kerwien also finds it easier to digest sprouted foods.
"I still feel full, but I don't feel stuffed up," she said.
That's a common claim. Proponents say that sprouting breaks down carbohydrates and other compounds, thereby easing digestion.
It's true that grains do change their makeup when they sprout.
Researchers have found decreases in starch, increases in sugars and an increase in the quality of protein, according to a summary of scientific studies by University of California Davis doctoral student Anna Jones.
Some changes could increase digestibility. But Dr. Sheri Zidenberg-Cherr, a nutrition specialist at the university, cautioned that the changes are slight and that there is no research yet showing humans have an easier time metabolizing sprouted grains.
"What actually is measured in the laboratory might show some potential for increased digestibility," Zidenberg-Cherr said, "but it's so small that it most likely wouldn't have an impact, and no study has actually shown that it would."
There also are people who claim that sprouts are so dense with nutrients that they can help people fight disease.
Dr. Paul Talalay at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in the '90s found that broccoli sprouts contain a cancer-fighting chemical called sulforaphane at concentrations much higher than mature broccoli heads. Separately, Japanese researchers reported a decade ago that germinating brown rice increases the levels of fiber and beneficial amino acids.
There also is research showing certain sprouts with higher levels of bioactive compounds that have been linked to health benefits – such as isoflavones in soybean sprouts and reservatol in germinated peanut kernels, says Chang Yong Lee, a professor of food chemistry at Cornell University. But Lee said that does not necessarily mean that all sprouts contain higher levels of beneficial nutrients. He said it needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis.
Despite some intriguing findings, sprout research remains an "emerging field," says Alice Bender, registered dietitian with the American Institute for Cancer Research.
"It will be interesting to see where it goes," Bender said. "But in terms of making any one food sort of a magic bullet or the key, we want to look at the overall pattern of diet."
Ironically, sprouts tend to make headlines occasionally for a negative health effect. There have been at least 30 reported outbreaks of food-borne illnesses associated with raw or lightly cooked sprouts since 1996, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
A good number of these cases involve alfalfa sprouts and salmonella, including an outbreak late last year that sickened more than 100 people in 18 states.
"The problem with all sprouts is that the conditions that are optimal for that seed to make a sprout also happen to be absolutely perfect for growing bacteria," says Donald Schaffner, professor of food microbiology at Rutgers University.
Schaffner added that the industry has done a better job keeping its food safe recently.
"The number and size of the outbreaks is going down over time" he said.