Microgreens versus Sprouts

Microgreens are not the same as sprouts. Some articles about microgreens characterize them as being very much the same as sprouts. There are several important differences. Understanding the different production methods of each can help clear up any confusion between them.

Sprouts are simply germinated seeds. What is eaten consists of the seed, root, stem and pale, underdeveloped leaves. The FDA seeks to regulate all businesses that produce sprouts due to numerous outbreaks of food poisoning (11 recalls/alerts in the past year alone). Salmonella and Escherichia coli O157:H7 have been the major causes of sprout-associated illness outbreaks. Commercial sprout processors must follow rigorous FDA Guidelines for production that include multiple laboratory tests of each batch for the presence of pathogenic bacteria, to minimize the threat of food borne illness.

Retail package of sprouts with FDA Warning on container

Soaking seeds in water Sprouting begins Sprouting completed Sprouts ready to use

Sprouts are produced entirely in water. The seed is not actually planted. A high density of seed is placed inside of sprouting equipment or enclosed containers. The seed germinates rapidly due to the high moisture and humidity levels maintained in the enclosures. Seeds can also be sprouted in cloth bags that are repeatedly soaked in water. The sprouting process occurs in dark or very low light conditions. These dark, wet, crowded conditions are ideal for the rapid proliferation of dangerous pathogenic bacteria.

After one day of soaking and a few days of rinsing only in water (2-6 or more times per day to prevent spoilage), the sprouted seeds are ready for consumption. This is long before the expansion of any leaves. These sprouted seeds are generally sold as a tangled mass of very pale roots, stems and leaf buds. Microgreens cannot be grown using these methods.

Microgreens are not grown in water. The seeds are planted and grown in soil or a soil substitute such as peat moss, or other fibrous materials. They are generally grown in high light conditions with low humidity and good air circulation. The seed density is a fraction of what is used in sprout processing so each individual plant has space in which to grow and develop. Most varieties require 1-2 weeks growing time, some 4-6 weeks. After the leaves are fully expanded the microgreens are ready for harvest. They are cut above the soil surface and packed without any roots. Some micro greens are sold while still growing so that they can be cut by the end user.

If the stem is cut leaving root left behind, and it is not produced in water, it is a microgreen, not a sprout. Microgreens that are grown in the brightest light with plenty of space and good ventilation have increased vigor resulting in more color and flavor.

The conditions that are ideal for growing microgreens do not encourage the growth of dangerous pathogens. These growing methods would not work for the production of sprouts.

Various Microgreens ready for harvest

To minimize confusion, it is important to avoid using words like “spouting” or “sprouts” when writing about or describing microgreens. FDA inspectors do not always understand the differences, potentially putting a microgreen grower in the position of explaining them or being shut down. There could be confusion if the grower has described microgreens as being in any way similar to sprouts. The FDA will consider enforcement actions against any party growing sprouts commercially, who does not have effective preventive controls in place, involving extensive microbial testing and FDA oversight.

Microgreens have much stronger, more developed flavors than sprouts making them an ideal garnish with a broad range of leaf shapes, textures and colors.

General Specifications of a Microgreen
A microgreen consists of a central stem having two fully developed cotyledon leaves, and usually one pair of the plant’s true leaves. Differences in the size and leaf configuration are based upon the specific plant variety. For example, Micro Borage is a very large microgreen. At 1″ in height, it has a pair of very large cotyledon leaves and no true leaves. By comparison, Micro Mint has extremely tiny cotyledon leaves and will have 3-4 sets of true leaves at about 1″ in height. More typical in size and leaf configuration for micro greens is Micro Basil at about 1-1 1/2″ in height, having the cotyledon leaves and one set of small true leaves.

Varieties of Microgreens
The seeds used to grow microgreens are the same seeds that are used for full sized herbs, vegetables and greens. *Microgreens are simply seedlings that are harvested before they develop into larger plants.

Commonly grown varieties of microgreens include: Amaranth, Arugula, Beets, Basil, Cabbage, Celery, Chard, Chervil, Cilantro, Cress, Fennel, Kale, Mustard, Parsley, Radish, and Sorrel.

Several varieties can be mixed together after harvest to create a mixture of tastes, textures and colors.

*Microgreens have also been called micro vegetables, however this term more accurately describes very small bite-sized root vegetables such as carrots, onions and radishes.


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