FOCUS ON AGRICULTURE: Microgreens add more to meals than visual appeal and palate-pleasing taste

Posted: Jan. 10, 2013 2:19 pm Updated: Feb. 7, 2013 4:15 pm


Tiny versions of edible greens are four to six times higher in nutrient value than their mature counterparts.

Microgreens are becoming popular at upscale restaurants because of their texture, colors and intense flavors, but it turns out they add more to meals than just visual appeal and palate-pleasing taste.

"Microgreens are super-nutritious," said Zhenlei Xiao, a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland.

Xiao is part of a team of University of Maryland and U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers who looked at levels of vitamins and carotenoid phytochemicals such as beta-carotene and lutein in 25 varieties of microgreens. They found that leaves from almost all of the microgreens had more nutrients than the mature leaves of the same plant.

There was variation among them with red cabbage highest in vitamin C while the green daikon radish microgreens had the most vitamin E.

The findings were published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. "Some of the numbers were really, really high," Xiao said. "It's very impressive."

Microgreens are not the same as sprouts, she said. Sprouts are germinated seeds and are soaked in water. With microgreens, seeds are planted and grown in soil or a soil substitute and generally are ready to harvest in 7-14 days.

Among the most commonly grown microgreens are arugula, beets, radish, cilantro, golden pea shoots, fennel, parsley, celery, chard, kale, cress, mustard, basil, spinach and broccoli.

While nutritious microgreens may find their way to more American dinner tables, they won't replace their fibrous mature versions. They have a short shelf life and are better eaten raw.

Deep roots

In the prolonged summer drought, farmers noticed that grass stayed green longer in hayfields than pastures.

The difference is in the length of the roots. Grass that is grazed every day doesn't develop roots as deep as grass of the same species allowed to grow uncut for a month.

"Allowed to grow, grass roots will go down and find water," said Dennis Hancock, University of Georgia Extension forage specialist.

Forage crops can withstand the usual summer dry periods, Hancock said, but they must be given a chance to grow and develop deep roots.

The unseen loss from continuously grazed pastures is the killing of roots, he said. If leaves are continuously clipped, the roots die back. There's not enough photosynthesis to feed the roots. That's when lack of roots cuts the supply of water to the leaves.

Lack of strong roots on pasture grasses results in great loss to livestock producers.

Unmanaged grazing cuts losses further. On continuously grazed pastures, cattle get only 30-40 percent of the growth. Rotational grazing, or moving livestock off the pasture before all the leaves are eaten, improves total growth.

Dividing a pasture into just four paddocks and rotating animals improves efficiency to above 60 percent. "There is lots of room for improvement," Hancock said. "If you had only 30 percent efficiency feeding your corn, you would do something about it."

Letting livestock graze forage, instead of harvesting and feeding it, is the way to increase profits.

"There's no reason not to have a 300-day grazing season," Hancock said. "Grazing grass can eliminate most of a 120-day hay-feeding season each winter. The goal is not to unroll a bale of hay."

Compiled by Herald-Whig Staff Writer Deborah Gertz Husar.