While the name may make you smile and laugh with thoughts of the “Little Rascals” character, alfalfa sprouts are no joke. The sprout of the alfalfa flower seed is full of health benefits — all while low in calories and high in vitamins and minerals.
In fact, studies show that alfalfa sprouts can combat two of the most common health issues in the world, particularly the U.S.: cancer and diabetes. And those are just two of the conditions alfalfa sprouts help treat or prevent.
Let’s find out just how these flower sprouts are able to fight these chronic diseases … along with all the other benefits alfalfa sprouts provide.
What Are Alfalfa Sprouts?
Alfalfa sprouts come from a germinated alfalfa seed and are a great, nutritious addition to many meals. When the seed germinates, it creates a shoot, which is then harvested before the plant matures fully. Commonly found in Oriental dishes, it’s usually added to soups, on top of sandwiches and with salads.
Sprouts are filled with many of the great benefits found in seeds and actually are healthier because the process of sprouting brings out many enzymes. They also carry more protein, vitamins and minerals, as well as a lower proportion of starch, than unsprouted seeds. The starches are turned to simple sugars and are thus easier to digest.
Sprouting dates back as far as 5,000 years, when Chinese physicians used sprouts medicinally. In the 1700s, sailors discovered sprout’s ability to prevent scurvy, which was the most common cause of death on long voyages. (1)
During World War II, Dr. Clive McKay, a nutrition professor at Cornell University, brought the idea of sprouts into the mainstream Western food culture. During the war, McKay and his team of researchers determined bean sprouts to be an easily cultivated, nutritional food source, calling bean sprouts,
… a vegetable that will grow in any climate, will rival meat in nutritive value, will mature in 3–5 days, may be plated any day of the year, will require neither soil nor sunshine, will rival tomatoes in vitamin C, will be free of waste in preparation, and can be cooked with little fuel.
It’s amazing to consider how valuable this discovery was in a time when resources were low and the need for nutritious food was high.
The alfalfa plant itself also has a long, rich history. We typically think of alfalfa as a plant used for animal feed, but it provides many benefits to humans as well. Alfalfa has a high vitamin content and is sometimes used as a nutritional supplement — and you’ll see why below. (2)
Alfalfa sprouts are very low in calories but provide a number of vitamins and minerals, which makes them a perfect supplemental item to add to your favorite meals.
- 23 calories
- 2.1 grans carbohydrates
- 3.99 grams protein
- 0.69 gram fat
- 1.9 grams fiber
- 30.5 micrograms vitamin K (38 percent DV)
- 8.2 milligrams vitamin C (14 percent DV)
- 36 micrograms folate (9 percent DV)
- 0.2 milligram manganese (9 percent DV)
- 0.2 milligram copper (8 percent DV)
- 70 milligrams phosphorus (7 percent DV)
- 27 milligrams magnesium (7 percent DV)
- 0.1 milligram riboflavin(7 percent DV)
- 0.9 milligram zinc (6 percent DV)
- 1 milligram iron (5 percent DV)
- 0.1 milligram thiamine (5 percent DV)
- 155 IU vitamin A (3 percent DV)
1. Reduce Risk of Breast Cancer
Alfalfa sprouts are a great source of isoflavones and other phytoestrogens, which are plant compounds that mimic human estrogen. (5, 6) Studies of consumption of soy foods, which also have high concentrations of isoflavones, have shown positive outcomes in decreasing risk of death and recurrence in breast cancer patients. (7, 8)
The Nutrition Journal also detailed some of the ways nutrition can curb breast cancer, including alfalfa. (9)
2. Minimize Menopause Symptoms and Excessive Menstruation
Thanks to high levels of vitamin K and phytoestrogens, alfalfa sprouts can help women minimize symptoms related to menopause and menstruation. Vitamin K is a blood-clotting vitamin, so it can help with excessive bleeding.
The combination of vitamin K and phytoestrogens has an effect on regulating estrogen, which could help minimize PMS and symptoms of menopause. (10)
3. Prevent Osteoporosis
Vitamin K builds bones, which is why it’s essential in preventing and even helping to treat osteoporosis. (11) The body needs vitamin K to adequately utilize the calcium, which builds bones. Thanks to the growing understanding of the benefits of vitamin K on bone health and ongoing studies that show the connection between bone health and increased levels of vitamin K, the daily recommended values of the vitamin has been increased approximately 50 percent. (12)
Alfalfa sprouts also have a notable amount of manganese, which is also an essential nutrient in preventing osteoporosis and inflammation.
4. Lower Blood Glucose Levels and Treat Diabetes
While there is no cure for diabetes, regulating the disease naturally can be achieved through a diabetic diet. A study published in the Pakistan Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences found that alfalfa sprouts are a successful anti-diabetic due to their ability to lower blood glucose levels. (13)
Regulating blood sugar levels is imperative in treating diabetes, and using food items like alfalfa sprouts helps decrease the dependency on insulin.
5. Chock-Full of Antioxidants and Other Anti-Aging Agents
Alfalfa sprouts are a proven high-antioxidant food, which helps protect our cells from damage caused by free radicals. (14) Antioxidants promote better health and can prevent a number of diseases and illnesses, such as cancer and heart disease.
A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows alfalfa sprout’s vitamin K levels not only fight vitamin K deficiency, but also help prevent diseases connected to aging (osteoporosis, cancer, artery hardening, etc.). (15)
6. Combat Cholesterol
Alfalfa sprouts are a successful anti-hyperlipidemic, which means they help reduce the levels of lipids in the blood. (16) Reducing lipid count can have an effect on reducing symptoms of coronary heart disease brought on by high cholesterol levels.
7. Great Supplementary Source of Vitamin C
Alfalfa sprouts on one of the top vitamin C foods. A serving of alfalfa sprouts can offer 14 percent of your recommended daily value of vitamin C, and because vitamin C is water-soluble, we need to replenish our supply through our diets. Alfalfa sprouts are such an easy addition to meals, it’s a great way to supplement your vitamin C needs — which is essential to many healthy bodily functions.
Despite needing more research, many communities believe alfalfa sprouts can also increase milk supply in nursing mothers, aid kidney and bladder problems, and help upset stomach, asthma and arthritis. (18)
Purchasing and Using
Alfalfa sprouts are readily available in most grocery stores and food markets. When choosing them, look for freshness in the roots and stems. They should smell fresh and clean.
Be sure to wash them thoroughly when returning home, and keep the sprouts properly refrigerated. If they begin to smell musty, do not consume them.
Growing at Home
Growing alfalfa sprouts at home is easy and fun, and there are multiple ways to do so in the comfort of your own home. (19)
First off, be sure to buy seed that is not treated with fungicide or any other chemicals. You should only use seed meant for growing sprouts.
You can grow them in a jar, a clay tray or other containers.
North Carolina State University recommends this method for growing sprouts at home: (20)
- Wash seeds (about 2 oz.) and soak in lukewarm water 6 to 8 hours or overnight at room temperature.
- Next, put the seeds in a jar covered with cheesecloth after the soaking process.
- Continue to keep the seeds sprinkled with water at least 2 to 3 times each day. The sprinkling may be done once early in morning and again before retiring to bed at night. It helps to roll the jar (container) around during each sprinkling to allow for easy lengthening (growth) of the sprouts until they’re 2.5 to 4 inches long and ready to eat.
- For best results, use only non-chlorinated water, such as well water, spring water or distilled water, because the chlorine in city water can cause poor sprouting. Sprouting is best done at 70 to 80 degrees F in a dark place. It will take 3 to 7 days to obtain mature-sized sprouts, depending on the temperature.
- Place mature sprouts in a water-filled container and wash to remove seed coats and fibrous roots. The seed sprouts will sink to the bottom, and the seed hulls will float to the top. Gently skim the seed hulls off by hand or with a small wire strainer. Allow sprouts to drip drain.
- Sprouts are best when used immediately after washing but can be stored for several days in the refrigerator (38 to 50 degrees F) in closed glass and plastic containers or freezer bags.
- The size of mature sprouts varies. Allowing the sprouts to grow too long (over 4 inches) may cause them to become bitter.
Alfalfa sprouts can be added to almost any meal, but here are a few of my favorite recipes:
- Artichoke, Avocado and Alfalfa Sprout Salad
- Homemade Tortillas with Guacamole, Cucumber and Sprouts
- Alfalfa Sprout Omelette
Risks and Side Effects
While alfalfa sprouts are nutritious and provide many health benefits, there are some precautions that come with these seed sprouts.
Sprouts have a reputation in connection with foodborne illness. Because they’re consumed raw or lightly cooked, they do carry a risk. Sprouts need a warm and humid environment to grow, which is also the environment ideal for bacterial growth. Sprouts contaminated with Salmonella and E. coli have caused at least 30 outbreaks since 1996.
The bacterial problem with sprouts usually begins with the seed. There are a number of techniques to kill harmful elements on alfalfa seeds, but nothing is proven to eliminate all bacteria. Growing sprouts at home also does not guarantee they’re any safer, as the problem lies in the seed.
The FDA has advised that children, the elderly and persons with weakened immune systems should avoid consuming raw sprouts.
Also, because of high levels of vitamin K, individuals taking blood thinners should avoid alfalfa sprouts. This can be an major interaction, so check with your Doctor before consuming alfalfa sprouts.
There are concerns about how the levels of canavanine found in alfalfa sprouts affects the human body, specifically the immune system. WebMD issues this warning about alfalfa sprouts and those suffering autoimmune diseases: “Alfalfa might cause the immune system to become more active, and this could increase the symptoms of auto-immune diseases. There are two case reports of SLE patients experiencing disease flare after taking alfalfa seed products long-term. If you have an auto-immune condition, it’s best to avoid using alfalfa until more is known.” (21)
More studies are needed to determine exactly how and why certain disorders are affected by alfalfa sprouts, but the following individuals should avoid alfalfa sprouts until more is know:
- Diabetics using other herbal supplements and medications known to lower blood sugar
- Individuals using medications that increase sensitivity to sunlight
- Individuals using immunosuppressants
- Estrogen-sensitive conditions
Alfalfa sprouts have a funny-sounding name, but they most definitely should be taken seriously. They have been tied to fighting aging, cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes, high cholesterol and menopause symptoms, along with providing high levels of vitamins and minerals.
They’re also easy to sprout at home, though keep in mind there are certain precautions you should take. However, as long as you keep those precautions in mind, alfalfa sprouts make a great addition to many recipes and provide a delicious, low-calorie, nutrient-dense option to your diet.