Sprouts are key to well being

Fiann Ó Nuailláin discusses the cancer-beating properties of baby shoots, which can be sprouted anywhere.

When I say sprouts, fear not, I am not talking about those Christmas baubles half of you only have on the plate out of tradition. No, I am taking about seed sprouts — germinated seeds that we can eat — not just for sustenance, but to reinvigorate our health and energy levels at this time of the year.

Sprouting is possible and popular across every month of the year, but as we look out on the lake that used to be a lawn, and lament the lack of snorkels in Aldi and Lidl, sprouting is a great way to let your green fingers earn their keep. And there is technique to it — more on that later — but first the health benefits and health warnings.

Nuts and seeds are little nutrient bullets packed with tremendous energy and bursting with life force. 

Some anthropologists offer the idea that they may have entered the human diet via means of sympathetic magic or ritual feasting — whatever the reality of that, certainly humankind has discerned which types kept you the right side of the grass and which ones didn’t.

And this is the first health warning — not everything that sprouts is fit for the mouth. We as a society, for sustainability and gastronomic experience, are moving into new (or previously lost) territories with food plants. Amaranth, while a food crop continuously grown in South America, was more of an ornamental garden flower in the European context until we worked our palates and sensibilities through couscous and quinoa.

Now it is grown by some ambitious giy’ers as a gluten free grain and sold in health stores to sprout on your window sill as a superfood. Once bean sprouts only came with Chinese takeaway — now supermarkets sell sprouted mung beans and more and the new generation of delis are bapping, wrapping and sandwiching all sorts of sprouts and micro-veg.

The great benefit of the sprouting process is that it makes it easier for us to absorb those seed nutrients. If you are eating sunflowers and pumpkin seeds to combat a health issue — to strengthen your immune system or boost your sex life— by sprouting these seeds, you can absorb and process much more of their beneficial zinc content.

Sprouting simply ramps up the bioavailability of minerals and nutrients stored in those nuts and seeds. But we can also select to sprout seeds we know as plants, that do us good. There is a lot of research happening at present into phytochemicals —known as glucosinolates that amongst several wonderful attributes also exhibit anti-cancer and chemoprotective actions. Found in brassicias and particularly broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower, you could say having a health crisis is hard enough without broccoli soup for breakfast — but how simple is it to have some sprouts and micro-veg in a salad for lunch? No chore to that, just straight absorption of delicious food that happens to packed with chemicals to kick cancers out.

That’s a double boot in the butt to illness — enjoying the medicine and fearless living. I am not saying go off the meds — I am saying you are not dead, enjoy your life. Have fun sprouting and savour the flavours of your endeavours. We are all terminal, just some haven’t been given a guesstimated expiration date by a clinical professional yet.

You know the saying ‘we are all born to die’ — well, while we are waiting let’s live. And before somebody wants to remind me of the difference between a gardening column and a soapbox — know that I will write more on the topic and over the next year I will not just look at how to grow food but explore how it can heal.

In terms of general well-being the nutrition available from sprouting includes more digestible vitamin K, folate, pantothenic acid, niacin, thiamin, riboflavin vitamin C, vitamin A, manganese, copper, zinc, magnesium, iron, and calcium — but they stand out when it comes to enzymes that are essential for health and some that uniquely enhance wellbeing.

Some are only present at this stage of the lifecycle in plants such as enzymes that boost metabolic processes and chemical reactions within our bodies. But beyond improving digestion and gastrointestinal health, we can look for enzymes with illness specific functions.

For example, say you suffer from cold sores, well, one enzyme that’s particularly potent in sprouted plants is lysine, it inhibits the growth of cold sores. What’s great is that lysine is also vital to correct calcium absorption. It is integral to the efficient production of antibodies of the immune system and also to the maintenance and production of the hormones of the endocrine system.

And if you are trying to be the next Conor McGregor or Katie Taylor or just activating that gym voucher your loved ones cruelly/supportively got you for your birthday, then you might need a bit more lysine in your diet. It will help strengthen the elasticity of ligaments and tendons, it even fortifies bones. 

It accelerates the recovery of ligaments, tendons and bone tissue after injuries and deaccelerates the rate of injury related inflammation.

Lysine also keeps good blood circulation, oxygenation of organs and muscles and energy release during a workout. Lysine may help switch off hunger impulses if you have a weight to make. Let me be the first to chant “sprouts before bouts”.

I did say there was a technique and it’s not floating like a butterfly, its prepping like a professional and following the rules to stop any potential for bacterial food-borne illness. 

The warm and humid conditions required to sprout the seed is conducive to bacterial growth too. Don’t be turned off the idea— you wash the muck off your carrots and the procedures with sprouting are no more taxing than caution and cleanliness. 

The trick is to sterilise the seeds (with some salt water followed by a rinse to remove the salt) and to sterilise the growing container before starting the sprouting process. Once sprouted, refrigerate, as cooler temperatures inhibit bacteria. Salt is not harmful to seed, it is harmful to germinating roots and leaves, so a rinse off is vital. Sieves and tea-strainers are invaluable in making life easier here.

Next comes the soak— put the seeds back into tepid water to help break the dormancy and encourage germination. Different seeds will soak up different amounts of water but as a guide, start with a ratio of 2-3 parts water to 1 part seed. 

The seeds will only absorb what they need, so no need to use the bathtub — a clean jam jar will do or you can buy sprouting trays. The trick is not to soak for too long. Different seeds have different dip durations — the norm is 8-12 hours, but some may only need 2 hours and others 15-20 minutes.

Amaranth will start after a 2-4 hours soak and will sprout over 1-1.5 days. Alfalfa and clover like a soak of 4-6 hours to sprout 6-8 days later. Barley will require a soak of 8-14 hours and sprouts within 2 days. Buckwheat only needs a 15-20 minutes soak and is up in a day. Quinoa can be soaked for 2-4 hours and should sprout within 12-14 hours. Mung beans, Adzuki beans and lentils need to soak for 8-14 hours, sprout within 1 day, peas likewise.

Cabbage, kale, broccoli and mustard generally will do on a 6-14 hours soak and germinate over next two days. Sunflower seeds soak for 8-14 hours and sprout within 18 hours. You can use hulled sunflower as their seed skins go off quickly and can spoil your batch. 

The odd one out is the squash seeds — you don’t so much sprout as just soak for 8-14 hours to get the enzymes active — pumpkin seeds are prone to bacterial spoilage and quick rancidity.

Once soaked your seed can be placed in a sprouting environment – be that a sprouting tray, a sprouting jar or a cloth. I use a shallow ceramic oven tray and a mason jar with a screen (mesh top) lid. Simply pile in a jar or if using a tray you can try laying your pre-soaked seed out with some space between, but remember you will be rinsing the seeds twice a day until and after they germinate. 

Rinsing is a simple swirl of water — gently washed over your seeds and drained off — to keep hydrated and clean the fledgling plants. Once sprouting occurs you can keep in the sprouting environment and place in a refrigerator, or refrigerate in a different container until consumed. If not used within 12 hours, sprouted seeds should be rinsed every 24 hours thereafter.


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