Sprouts: a miracle food for a nickel a pound. One of the basic tenets of the (Heaven forbid!) Protestant
Ethic is you don't get something for nothing . . .
and the way we've allowed the system to become organized,
that's certainly true. In fact, you could say more
Consider the rather small pile of devitalized and
fortified, homogenized and separated, treated, processed,
preserved, bleached and embalmed plastic food the local
supermarket just traded you for that rather large stack of
hard-earned bills. Clearly a case, say the malcontents
among us, of getting nothing for something . . .
and they may be right.
Well, there is a way out of this dilemma because
you can grow your own completely natural, unprocessed and
unpoisoned food at home . . . on pennies a day . . . fresh
all year round. Yep. And unbelievable as it may sound, you
can do it without a degree in agriculture, complicated
machinery, fourteen kinds of fertilizer or a single,
solitary cubic inch of soil.
What's more, you can raise this "garden" anytime and
anywhere . . . in your own kitchen, crossing the country in
a camper or sitting on a flagpole. And finally, the
"vegetables" you produce will be many times tastier, much
more nutritious and far less expensive than
anything you can buy. If that's not something for
nothing, it's an awful lot for mighty little.
Naturally, since such a food is almost too good to be true,
our Western heritage-famed for DDT, thermonuclear bombs and
the pop-top beer can—has neglected to advise us about
it. (Maybe because it's so hard to exploit commercially?)
Yet almost every primitive tribe and the entire Eastern
world—back to the dawn of recorded history—has
made good use of . . . sprouted seeds, or sprouts.
Sprouts: Miracle Food
Sprouts are truly a miracle food. You can grow them almost
any time and any place on only water, air
and—sometimes—a little sunlight. You can
produce a new crop every two to six days with a total of,
maybe, 10 minutes work. They're more nourishing than milk,
fresh meat . . . or anything: you could live almost
indefinitely on nothing but sprouts if you wanted. They
store exceptionally well in a refrigerator and can even be
dried. You can eat them thousands of ways . . . on
breakfast cereal, in fresh salads, steamed, in scrambled
eggs, sprinkled on soups, in meat loaf, as a major
ingredient of the world's absolutely best tasting and most
nutritious bread, fried, in stews, blended into health
drinks, as a sandwich filling, in desserts, as a snack. And
even at today's inflated prices, sprouts will cost you only
moat about five cents a pound.
Sprouts, in short, are so fantastically great that if
General Mills or the President's Commission On Poverty had
developed them—they would most certainly be
ballyhooed as The Complete, Transcending Nutritional
Miracle Of All Time. Neither God nor Mother Nature ever
hired a press agent, however, so most residents of the
United States eat sprouts only occasionally and only by
accident when they happen to dine in a Chinese
We are What We Eat
And more's the pity. Because a mere twenty or twenty-five
million dollars (pin money in the current federal budget)
well invested one time in sprouting containers and
instructions distributed to the residents of tenant-farm
shacks and crumbling tenements across this fair land . . .
could conceivably wipe out malnutrition in the U.S....
That's a sweeping statement, but look at it this way: we
think we're pretty smart here in the U.S. of A. because
"with the world's most technically advanced agribusiness",
we successfully raise enough food (even though we don't
distribute it) to feed our 200 million people and
have some left over to export. Of course we're rapidly
poisoning all our potable water with nitrates and
pesticides, we're "farming out" the top soil in the midwest
and we're silting and salting away hundreds of thousands of
acres in the irrigated southwest . . . but, as they say,
"that's the price we have to pay".
Now consider creaky old, backward, underdeveloped China.
With less really fertile farm land, almost no chemical
fertilizers and hardly any modern farm machinery, China
also exports grain . . . and feeds nearly one
billion citizens. One billion! A thousand million.
Have you any idea what a tremendous accomplishment that is
. . . and how impossible it would be for our "modern"
agricultural system? Pretty clever, these Chinese. How do
they do it?
Well one of China's secrets is sprouts. Matter of fact, the
earliest recorded mention of the tremendous food value of
germinated seeds occurs in a book attributed to the Emperor
of China about 2939 B.C. . . . and it probably wasn't a new
idea even then. Now, five thousand years later, Chinese
cuisine—among the most delicious and nutritious in
the world—still puts special emphasis on sprouts. If
that doesn't make the little beasties "time tested",
Now, if you will, reflect a moment on the fantastic difference in life style that the lowly sprout can wield.
Sprouts are home-grown by nearly every Chinese family, thus
assuring each living unit of a steady supply of
high-energy, low-cost food and automatically eliminating
much of the wasteful transportation, processing, packaging
and retailing costs of our "more highly developed" food
production system. The Chinese thus wisely avoid the
equivalent of giant trucks belching diesel fumes as they
haul frozen lettuce from California to Chicago, vast
networks of concrete creeping in upon the last open spaces
and sprawling supermarkets selling plastic produce, which
is to say that we are what we eat in far more ways than
To make a long story medium-length, then, the Chinese have
been relying heavily on sprouts ever since that ancient
Emperor wrote his book on plants and foods . . . and so
have a lot of other folks in the Eastern world and a number
of underdeveloped nations. And well they might, because
modern research is continually proving and reproving the
nutritional qualities of sprouts.
Modern Science Discovers Sprouts
Dr. Pauline Berry Mack, at the University of Pennsylvania,
has tested sprouted soybeans for Vitamin C (the
ungerminated seed contains none) and found that—when
sprouted 72 hours—one-half cup of the shoots
contained as much Vitamin C as six glasses of orange
Similar incredible leaps in vitamin content have been
recorded for other sprouts. Yale's Dr. Paul Burkholder
, for instance, discovered that oats
sprouted five days had 500% more B 6 , 600% more folic
acid, 10% more B 1 and 1350% more B 2 than unsprouted oats.
It should be noted, of course, that such vitamin increases
are not always a straight-line thing. Vitamin B 1 —to
cite one example—runs up and down like a yoyo in
soybeans as they sprout . . . but the general trend is
always spectacularly up and sprouted seeds are an excellent
source of vitamins A, B-complex, C, D, E, G, K—even
U—and minerals such as calcium, magnesium,
phosphorous, chlorine, potassium, sodium and silicon. All
in natural forms which the body can readily assimilate.
Furthermore, according to Dr. Francis Pottenger, Jr.,
sprouted grains and legumes supply all eight essential
amino acids which make up "complete" protein. Other
investigations have shown that many of the proteins in
sprouts are already "predigested", or broken down into
their constituent amino acids.
Sprouts also just happen to be packed full of
enzymes—the complex catalysts which initiate and
control almost every chemical reaction that takes place in
living organisms—too. Since the body gradually
manufactures fewer and fewer enzymes as it ages, since
enzymes are killed by temperatures greater than 140°
(cooking) and since our stock of enzymes must be
replenished by eating fresh produce . . . it seems that
we've just discovered another dang good reason for
consuming goodly quantities of raw, freshly-grown sprouts.
Then too, it's interesting to note that Dr. Loa of Yenching
University in Peking reports that the high level of simple
sugars in sprouts puts the little shoots in the category of
"quick energy" foods, since the monosaccarides they contain
require little digestive breakdown and enter the
bloodstream almost immediately.
Perhaps most amazing of all—particularly in
comparison with the chemically preserved but nutritionally
next-to-worthless foods from the supermarket—all the
body builders which appear as sprouts grow . . . turn out
to be almost perfectly stable. Even after
dehydration or freezing, sprouts retain their enhanced
How Do Those Little Bitty Seeds Do It?
But where do all these great things come from? How can
seeds full of fat and starches . . . plus plain old air,
water and a little sunshine . . . add up to vitamins,
proteins and enzymes?
Simple. During sprouting, those fats and starches are
converted into vitamins, simple sugars and proteins as they
absorb the air and water.
Seeds, you see, are divided into two basic parts: a
miniature replica of a plant (the embryo) and a supply of
stored carbohydrates, oils and proteins (the endosperm).
When environmental conditions are suitable—here's
where the warmth, moisture and air comes in—a seed
germinates. That is, the tiny embryo feeds upon the
endosperm until it has roots sunk into the soil and leaves
opened to the sun.
During this process, much of the until-now-inactive
endosperm is converted into readily-available nutrients . .
. and that metamorphosis is the key to the miracle food
value of sprouts. If we harvest the little shoots
after the endosperm has been transformed into rich
vitamins, enzymes, amino acids, etc. but before
the embryo gets a chance to consume the nourishment . . .
we've got about the best-for-us food imaginable!
Well, the theory is beautiful . . . but what about
practical results? "I'm glad," said he, in his best W.C.
Field's voice, "you asked that question." Here are just a
handful of astonishing health cures credited to sprouts:
During WWI, Dr. Cyrus French used sprouted peas and lentils
rich in Vitamin C to rid British and Indian troops in
Mesopotamia of scurvy symptoms.
In the Philippines, a Dr. Santos cured patients of
beri-beri by administering sprouted mung beans as the only
source of B-complex vitamins.
Ann Wigmore of Boston has demonstrated the beneficial
effects of sprouts in retarding and curing problems ranging
from diabetes to ulcers to cancer.
Fertility was restored to barren cows at the Agricultural
Experimental Station in Beltsville, Maryland by feeding the
animals Vitamin E-laden oat sprouts.
Major Wiltshire of King's College in England, finding that
Algerian laborers in France suffered from scurvy (although
they'd been healthy at home), traced their diet deficiency
to commercial beer . . . which lacks the Vitamin C of their
native sprouted millet beer.
If you need more convincing, Catharyn Elwood packs a lot of
examples into a few pages of her book Feel Like a Million. For now, let's just say
that sprouts are powerful food.
Inexpensive too. If you buy a hundred pounds of
organically-grown soybeans for fifteen dollars plus
freight, say, your cost per pound will average twenty
cents. If you then soak and sprout the beans, you'll find
you harvest four to eight pounds of shoots from each pound
of dry beans. Your cost for the delicious, vitamin-packed
sprouts, then, is less than five cents per pound .
. . nothing to sneeze at in these days of funny money,
recession and unemployment.
But Do Sprouts Taste Good?
I can appreciate questions about the taste of sprouts
because I don't care for cooked okra, turnips, cabbage and
a lot of other garden fare. I do like fresh green
salads and raw vegetables, however, and that's what most
sprouts—especially raw alfalfa sprouts—are all
about. Soybean shoots served the same way have a little too
much raw bean taste for me but become magically delicious
with only the slightest (about one-two minutes) steaming.
Sprouted wheat goes well on cereal and is excellent in
home-baked bread, rye sprouts add a mouthwatering wild rice
taste when sprinkled into soups just before serving and
sprouted peas are fantastic if lightly steamed and served
with a pat of butter melting down through them. Almost
everyone, of course, has a favorite Chinese recipe built
around mung bean sprouts.
Which is to say that there's almost as much variety in the
taste of sprouts as there is in "traditional" vegetables.
Personal tastes vary but you're sure to find at least half
a dozen "kinds" of sprouts and a couple of hundred sprout
recipes that suit you to a T. Almost any natural foods
cookbook features a great number of ideas for using the
little critters, starting with raw salads and ending with
"pick-me-up" beverages made by blending the shoots with
various combinations of fruit juices, nuts and honey. The
possibilities are truly endless.
So, if you recognize a good thing when you see it, you're
probably gonna run right out, get you a sprouter and start
tapping all the goodness Momma Nature has locked into
seeds. To coin a phrase, "Start sprouting . . . and start
Sprouting Containers and How to Use Them
You can successfully grow sprouts in any number of common
kitchen containers if you adapt your technique to the
equipment at hand. Just keep in mind that the ideal sprout
"garden" provides a warm, dark, moist— not
wet —environment for the developing seeds. It's
also a good idea to use one jar, strainer, pan or whatever
exclusively for raising shoots (to help prevent tainting
Probably the simplest container of all is a large mouthed
quart jar (use a smaller or bigger jar, depending on how
many sprouts you want to grow at a time). Most folks who
use such a jar simply dump in the seeds, stretch a piece of
cheesecloth over the top and secure the cloth with a rubber
band. Others prefer to cut a circle of wire mesh which is
clamped to the jar top by a screw-on canning ring. Either
cover allows convenient and thorough flushing of the shoots
every four to six hours as they develop. Such a sprouting
container is usually kept in a dark cupboard between
rinsings. A large bowl makes an ideal holder for the jar
during these growth periods since the container should be
held top down at about a 45° angle to insure proper
drainage of the sprouts.
An earthenware flowerpot with its bottom drain hole
partially blocked by cheesecloth or a wad of cotton also
makes a good sprout garden. Unglazed pottery is best
because it absorbs water and thus insures that the shoots
will be kept moist but not wet. Cover the pot with a saucer
and set it in a shallow pan of water. Remember, however,
that even though moisture will "wick" through the bottom of
an unglazed flowerpot, the sprouts will still need regular
rinsings of clean water to retard the development of mold.
Tea strainers, colanders and coffee percolators are
excellent sprouting containers and—several years ago,
while living in Seattle—I modified two plastic
freezing cartons, a small square of screen wire and a piece
of sponge into a "never fail" version of the tea strainer
sprouter (see illustration). The large cans and metal
mesh-covered trays used by commercial sprouters are another
variation on the same idea.
In a pinch, seeds can be sprouted between moist towels,
sponges or layers of paper although lack of ventilation
usually leads to souring and molds when using paper and the
shoots have an annoying habit of growing through the
Small sprouters are also sold by a few mail order companies
but are usually overpriced and work no better than the
quart jar described here. As a matter of fact, few
expensive store-bought sprouters work as well as the
freezer carton-screen wire sponge combination illustrated
with this piece.
How and What to Sprout
Almost any seed, grain or legume can be successfully
sprouted although most devotees of the art think that
alfalfa, soybeans, mung beans, lentils, peas and the cereal
grasses—wheat, oats, barley and rye—give the
very best results. Unhulled sesame and sunflower, radish,
mustard, red clover, fenugreek, corn, lima beans, pinto
beans, kidney beans, chick peas, cress, millet and nearly
any other seed you can think of will work, however (never
eat potato sprouts though, the plant is a member of the
poisonous nightshade family).
Select clean, whole seeds . . . the best you can find. Make
certain they haven't been chemically treated in any way,
however, because the poison could have damaged the embryo
which might cause the seed to rot instead of sprout.
Needless to say, the treatment might also sicken or poison
Wash the seeds thoroughly, pick out any chaff or cracked
hulls and check the grain or whatever for fertility
(sterile seeds float).
It only takes about a tablespoon of alfalfa seeds and two
or three times that amount of beans or peas to "plant"
25-30 square inches. Soak the seeds overnight in a warm,
dark place (such as a kitchen cupboard) in about three
times as much water as you have seeds. The water should be
warm (70-80°) and free of chlorine and flourine (which
can sterilize the tender embryo). Some of the smaller
seeds—alfalfa, clover, etc.—will sprout without
this overnight soak but it won't hurt them.
Pour the water off the next morning and save it to add to
fruit juices or use as stock (it's loaded with
water-soluble vitamins and minerals). The seeds will have
doubled in size and should be rinsed carefully to avoid
Place the seeds in a warm, moist, dark container. Flush
every four to six hours with water to clean the developing
sprouts and to insure adequate moisture for their growth.
Be absolutely certain the seeds drain well after each
rinsing, however, for they'll sour and rot if left standing
in water. Remember too that some heat will be generated by
the sprouts. They'll need a little ventilation so don't
cover them too tightly.
In three to six days, depending on temperature (80-90°
is best for most) and seed variety, your sprouts will again
have doubled or tripled in volume and you'll have yourself
some mighty good and nourishing eating. The greater number
of shoots are at peak vitamin potency 60 to 80 hours after
germinating . . . but personal preferences in taste,
texture and appearance may persuade you to let yours grow
Soybeans, peas and alfalfa are about right when their
sprouts are two to three inches long. Grain shoots should
be eaten when much shorter—about the length of the
kernel itself—or they're bitter. Sunflower sprouts
also develop a rather unpleasant tangy taste when they
exceed the length the seeds from which they develop. The
lentil sprout is best when about an inch long, while shoots
from the mild-flavored mung bean may be allowed to reach a
length of three or four inches before harvest. By the way,
some people pluck the seed hull from each sprout before
serving but that's a waste of time and good nutrition . . .
eat the whole shebang!
If you expose your sprouts to indirect sunlight during
their final several hours of growth, they'll develop
chlorophyl. Too much of this green substance causes the
shoots to toughen, however, so don't overdo it. Some
chlorophyl is good, though, because its molecule is very
similar to hemoglobin—the only difference being that
chlorophyl has magnesium at its center while hemoglobin has
iron—and, consequently, acts as a kind of blood
You may have some difficulty getting soybeans to sprout
successfully, especially in warm weather, so be
particularly careful to use beans from the current year's
crop (this is good advice generally). Varieties which
sprout best include Chief, Ebony, Illini, Lincoln and
Richland . . . and, happily, all beans lose their
gas-producing qualities as they turn into shoots.