Microgreens are beautiful. They come in a variety of colors, and they just look so…fresh! For this reason alone, top chefs in high-end restaurants use them as garnishes on their best dishes. Microgreens also taste amazing. Being harvested so young, they have an intensity of flavor that is simply incomparable to any other food. But what about the health benefits of microgreens? As the “Food as Medicine” movement grows and gathers strength, what role can microgreens play in improving our health?
Food As Medicine
DISCLAIMER: I am not a doctor. Do not make any radical changes to your diet without first consulting your personal doctor (or primary healthcare provider,) and do not stop taking any medicine prescribed to you by your doctor.
Hippocrates, a Greek physician considered to be the father of Western medicine, famously said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” He also said, “The greatest medicine of all is teaching people how not to need it.” When I was growing up we were taught the mantra, “You are what you eat.”
For thousands of years, medicine was food and/or herb based. Physicians, midwives and other healers were very knowledgeable about which plants and other foods were helpful in treating a whole variety of health conditions. This extensive knowledge was carefully passed on from doctor to student over generations, with some of the most dedicated to the overall good of the profession recording this knowledge in books known as “herbals.”
With the advent of “modern” medical practice and industrially produced pharmaceuticals, the amount of nutritional instruction in medical schools dropped down to almost nothing.
The Nutrition of Microgreens
It’s common knowledge that vegetables are good for you. The common consensus from numerous health studies is that consumption of vegetables can significantly reduce the risk of many chronic diseases. Vegetables are the primary dietary source of micronutrients (things like vitamins and minerals) that are necessary for good health. As of this writing, the current recommendation for healthy adults is 3-5 servings of vegetables per day in order to get the necessary amounts of these vital nutrients. Most people do not consume the recommended amount.
Microgreens, however, are taking things to a whole new level. Because microgreens are rich in nutrients, studies have suggested that smaller amounts may provide similar nutritional effects compared to larger quantities of mature vegetables. The initial jaw-dropping study which caused the researchers to double and triple check their results, (because they thought there must be a mistake) was conducted by the University of Maryland in conjunction with the United States Department of Agriculture in 2012. This study found that microgreens contained, on average, 5 times – and in some cases up to 40 times – the nutrients of their mature plant counterparts! These amazing results have prompted many more studies, (linked below) essentially creating a whole new category within the field of food science.
Of the 25 varieties analyzed in the 2012 study, these were some of the “winners”:
Most carotenoids (a vitamin A precursor) – Cilantro (this one surprised me)
Most phylloquinone (vitamin K) – Garnet Amaranth
Most tocopherols (vitamin E) – Green Daikon Radish
More exciting results
- Red cabbage microgreens lowered circulating LDL (the “bad” type of cholesterol) as well as liver inflammation in mice even when fed a high-fat diet
- Buckwheat microgreens were found to be not only a high source of protein, but also high in antioxidants, flavonoids, carotenoids, and alpha-tocopherol
- A comprehensive profiling of 5 Brassica species revealed a total of 164 different polyphenols (micronutrients found in plants that have antioxidant properties)
Mental Health Benefits
Dr. Drew Ramsey, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University has done groundbreaking work healing the brain thereby improving mental health with diet changes. Since discovering the literally life-changing effects that can be had by giving the brain the food that it needs to heal and be healthy, he has become an outspoken promoter of kale and other dark, leafy greens. He even founded National Kale Day! (It’s the first Wednesday of October.) I’ve embedded videos of his two TED talks at the bottom of this article.
In addition to the clinically measurable benefits of these dietary additions, growing your own microgreens can also contribute to one’s state of well-being in immeasurable ways. I can share from my own experience that it is extremely empowering to grow my own food. Without having to go to the grocery store – without having to even leave my house – I can have access to healthy, fresh brain-nourishing food that makes me feel proud to have grown it. Being so connected to one’s food gives an additional sense of security. And while almost any hobby can be useful for keeping the mind active and interested, having a hobby which also provides nourishment to the physical organ which houses the mind is a double benefit.
Almost all culinary herbs can be harvested as microgreens. Just like with other micro vegetables, the flavor profile is significantly more intense than in the corresponding mature plant. (Close your eyes and try to imagine pesto made with micro basil – Wow!) Herbal medicine makes use of an enormous variety of herbs, some of which have toxic leaves and/or stems and therefore which obviously cannot be consumed as food. But in that area of crossover between culinary and medicinal herbs, the idea of higher potency is intriguing. The study of microgreens is such a new field that so far I have not been able to find any published studies regarding the potential role of microgreens in herbal medicine. Will microgreens play a role in the future of herbal health and natural healing? Only time, and continued studies, will tell.
Blah, Blah, Science Stuff
Some people want to see all the statistics, numbers and data for themselves. Others are bored to tears with that kind of thing and just want the summary of it all. If you are the latter, feel free to skip over this part. If you are the former, read on.
The following is far from a comprehensive list of the scientific studies that have been conducted with and regarding microgreens. There are studies relating to growing under different conditions, different lighting, different harvesting methods, different packaging methods etc. The more that scientists discover about the health benefits of microgreens, the more they search for ways to make these nutritious superfoods available to people everywhere – even potentially to astronauts in space!
These are just a few of the most significant studies regarding the nutrition of microgreens. And no doubt, there will certainly be many more to come.
Assessment of Vitamin and Carotenoid Concentrations of Emerging Food Products: Edible Microgreens (18 July 2012) [The first study that was so surprising to the scientists conducting it]
Profiling Polyphenols in Five Brassica Species Microgreens (21 October 2013)
We’ve Only Just Begun
Even with all the discoveries that have been made regarding the health benefits of microgreens, it is only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. This is still a brand new field of study, and there is still so much to learn. The future is exciting!
***If you have experienced an improvement to your health as a result of adding microgreens to your diet that you would be willing to share, please do so in the Comments section below. You do not have to use your real name.***
As promised above, here are the two TED talks recently given by Dr. Drew Ramsey about the role of food in addressing mental health: