Sprouts are the edible, highly nutritious young shoots of newly germinated vegetable seeds or grains, such as alfalfa, barley, soybeans, and wheat, as well as mung, adzuki, and garbanzo beans. These nutrient-rich baby plants are believed to have been consumed since prehistoric times and prized for their health properties in Asia for millennia. Today, sprouts are used to add flavor and crunch to salads, soups, and
Because they require warm temperatures and moist conditions to grow, sprouts are highly susceptible to bacteria—including salmonella, E. coli, and listeria—particularly when growers and handlers do not take appropriate safety precautions.
Since a number of foodborne illness outbreaks have been associated with raw sprouts, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration advises consumers to cook sprouts before consuming them. The agency also recommends young children, pregnant women, the elderly, or anyone with a compromised immune system to avoid eating sprouts altogether.
References: FoodSafety.gov, University of California, USDA, U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Western Kentucky University.
TYPES, VARIETIES & CUTS
Sprouts can be produced from an array of vegetable or grain seeds. Alfalfa sprouts, grown from seeds of the common alfalfa plant (Medicago sativa), are the most commonly consumed variety in the United States; mung bean sprouts are the most popular worldwide.
Other varieties include broccoli, radish, sunflower, pumpkin, chickpea, onion, mustard, wheat, adzuki, soybean, buckwheat, and garbanzo sprouts. Sprouts are eaten raw, added to sandwiches, salads, juices, or smoothies, or cooked and added to stir fry dishes, curries, and stews.
References: Colorado State University, International Sprout Growers Association, University of California, USDA.
PESTS & DISEASE
Because sprouts are most commonly grown in indoor facilities, the threat of pests is extremely low. Alfalfa weevils infiltrate their host plants in California, North Carolina, and other parts of the United States. Young larvae feed on alfalfa buds, causing significant damage to the sprouts.
Bean thrips are slim, dark grey to black insects that feed on alfalfa seedlings, which can cause damage and contamination. The clover root curculio is a tiny grey or brown weevil that also feeds on alfalfa seedlings. Seedling thrips, a destructive pest of mung beans, may attack sprouts as soon as they emerge from the soil.
Damping-off is a disease commonly linked to alfalfa seeds. The condition is often the result of overwatering and/or pathogens in the soil. It causes seeds to die before they germinate and stunts the growth of any surviving sprouts.
Because sprouts are grown in a warm, humid environment, conditions are ideal for the growth of harmful bacteria such as salmonella, listeria and E. coli. Bacterial decay is another common issue with many sprout varieties. Caused by excessively warm temperatures, the condition can develop very quickly during growth or postharvest, causing the plants to rot. Charcoal rot infects mung bean seeds, causing sprouts to decay during the germination process. The condition is typically caused by a fungus present in the seeds.
References: Australian Mungbean Association, North Carolina State, Queensland Dept. of Agriculture and Fisheries, University of California.