Microgreens vs Sprouts – Differences

Microgreens and sprouts are two common terms usually used interchangeably, but they’re actually different. While they’re both very young vegetables that are harvested from a few hours to about 14 days of planting, they are different in terms of nutrition and care.

Microgreens and sprouts or even baby greens occur at different growth stages of vegetables, herbs, legumes, and grains and are difficult to tell apart. I have explained and illustrated the differences between sprouts and microgreens below.

What are sprouts?

Sprouts are premature vegetable, grain, or bean growth that are harvested just a few days post-germination (typically within 3-5 days). Not all types of sprouts are edible. The edible ones are used in a wide variety of ways. For instance, onion sprouts are used to add a spicy flavor to dishes, while alfalfa sprouts are used to add unique textures to salads and sandwiches.

You can grow sprouts from seed or purchase readily available ones from your local health food store or grocery. To identify whether the sprouts that you’re buying are fresh, check for crispiness and moist, white roots.

What are microgreens?

Microgreens are young shoots that are typically harvested within 1-2 weeks post-planting. They are a popular garnishing ingredient in fine dining. Microgreens form the intermediate stage between sprouts and baby greens.

You can identify microgreens by their unfurled seed leaves. Common examples of plants that are considered microgreens at this juvenile stage include kale, arugula, broccoli, mustard, sunflower microgreens, and radishes. These young vegetables and herbs add distinctive flavors and textures to food.

Microgreens vs. Sprouts – Differences

Many people find it difficult to tell microgreens and sprouts apart. But simply put- they’re young plant growth at different stages. Here are some clear differences between microgreens and sprouts:

MicrogreensSprouts
Microgreens take up to 14 days to be ready for harvesting.Sprouts take 3-5 days from germination to harvesting.
Microgreens have more fiber content than sprouts since they age more.Sprouts are less nutritious than microgreens with less fiber content.
Microgreens can be grown in a soil medium or in a hydroponic system.Sprouts are generally grown in a hydroponic system.
Microgreens are less likely to spread foodborne diseases.Sprouts are highly likely to cause foodborne diseases.
Microgreens grow to a height of 4-7 inches.Sprouts grow only up to 2-3 inches before they’re harvested.

Germination Duration

It takes about 3-5 days for planted seeds to develop into sprouts while microgreens are typically harvested in 7-14 days. In fact, some plant varieties produce sprouts within 24 hours post-planting.

Additionally, due to the different stages at which they’re harvested, there are noticeable height differences between these two types of foods. Microgreens measure between 4-7 inches while sprouts measure 2-3 inches.

Fiber Content

Microgreens have a higher fiber content compared to sprouts. And that’s why they’re also more expensive.

Growing medium

Sprouts are grown inside hydroponic systems while microgreens can be grown either hydroponically or inside a soil medium. This makes it the easier to grow of the two. Sprouts also have to be rinsed regularly to minimize the chances of microbial contamination. This isn’t necessary for microgreens, which thrive in conditions that are harsh for bacterial growth.

Chances of foodborne diseases

Sprouts are more vulnerable to bacterial infestation, since the conditions they require to thrive (high humidity and indirect sunlight) are also favorable to these microbes while microgreens thrive in direct sunlight and well-ventilated conditions, which are unfavorable for bacterial growth.

In addition, both the seed and shoot parts of sprouts are usually eaten, increasing the chances of seed-borne diseases. This is impossible with microgreens, as only the shoot and the baby leaves are eaten.

Are microgreens the same as baby greens?

Just as is the case with sprouts and microgreens, the terms microgreens and baby greens are often used in place of each other.

However- there’s a clear difference. Sprouts are plants whose cotyledon leaves are just starting to form their first set of true leaves. Baby greens- on the other hand- are vegetable leaves that are formed after the first set of true leaves have fallen off.

Baby greens are plants that are past the cotyledon leaf stage but haven’t reached full maturity. Microgreens are usually harvested between 7-14 days, while baby greens develop in about four weeks.

Another difference between baby greens and microgreens is in terms of nutritional value. Baby greens contain a significantly higher amount of various essential nutrients as compared to microgreens. These phytochemicals include phenols, carotenoids, and anthocyanins.

Baby greens are also richer in macro minerals and antioxidants while microgreens contain higher amounts of trace minerals like zinc, iron, and copper.

The final difference between microgreens and baby greens is their growth requirements. Cotyledon leaf growth doesn’t require any nutrients, hence microgreens can be grown inside regular garden potting soil that hasn’t been enriched. You also don’t have to sow deep when growing microgreens (no more than one inch deep).

To grow baby greens, meanwhile, you should sow the seeds inside a rich soil mix; and sow deeper- at about 2-3 inches. The nutrients from the soil support post-cotyledon growth into baby greens.

Are microgreens safe to eat?

It’s safe to eat microgreens either raw or cooked- so long as you follow the proper growth requirements and food handling practices. First, as earlier mentioned, microgreens are usually grown in conditions that are unattractive to microbes. Therefore- chances of contamination are usually significantly lower compared to sprouts.

However, this doesn’t mean that chances of pathogen and fungal contamination are zero. In fact, don’t be surprised to spot moldy growth on some of your microgreens.

Here are some of the reasons why your microgreens may carry food-borne diseases that could make you sick:

  • Growing your microgreens under improper conditions- such as indirect sunlight and high humidity/poor ventilation. This increases the chances of mold growth and bacterial contamination.
  • Sowing the wrong seeds- such as seeds that contain pesticides and fungicides.
  • Poor handling of the microgreens post-harvest. This can introduce microbes. For instance, placing your microgreens next to raw beef or chicken can introduce Salmonella or E. Coli pathogens.

To minimize chances of getting foodborne illnesses from eating microgreens, you can cook them instead of eating them raw. Take note- however- that cooking microgreens diminishes their nutrient content.

You can also grow safe microgreens by ensuring the right growing conditions. To do this, ensure the proper seeding density and avoid overwatering. Doing these will keep off moisture problems which encourage mold growth and other pathogens. Finally, you can use a dehumidifier to lower the humidity in the room, as bacteria thrive in humid conditions.

Which ones are better – microgreens or sprouts?

Both sprouts and microgreens are used to add flavor, texture, and color in a wide range of dishes. They also both pack great nutritional value- and the answer to which one is better depends on who you ask. Take note-however- that since microgreens are larger, they contain more dietary fiber and could be considered the better food from this perspective.

Below, we’ll review some of the most popular sprouts and microgreens, highlighting their nutritional value:

Common Sprouts

  • Alfalfa sprouts – beloved for their subtle flavor and crunchy texture when eaten raw, alfalfa sprouts pack substantial amounts of essential minerals (calcium, iron) and vitamins (A and C).
  • Red clover sprouts – these look and taste just like alfalfa sprouts and are rich in proteins, vitamins, and fiber.
  • Radish sprouts – these carry a spicy flavor and are great for garnishing food. Radish sprouts are rich in essential minerals like manganese and folate. They also contain vitamins B and C.

Common Microgreens

  • Cilantro microgreens – are rich in beta-carotene, as well as vitamins C and K. They have a citrus-like flavor that adds a warm taste to food.
  • Broccoli microgreens – rich in sulforaphane, which is crucial in fighting cancerous growth. They have a subtle taste with a crunchy texture; may also be mildly bitter.
  • Red cabbage microgreens– packed with substantial amounts of vitamin C, which is great for cardiovascular health. They pack an earthy flavor that’s savory when added into salads.

References

  1. https://fsi.colostate.edu/sprouts/
  2. https://isga-sprouts.org/about-sprouts/

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