tiny but mighty

Enter microgreens. A tiny but mighty culinary weapon.

Microgreens are the early incarnations of vegetables and herbs, typically eaten raw with their stem and leaves. They are harvested as seedlings, just when the first leaves appear, usually within 1-2 weeks when the plant is between 1-3 inches long (1). Common types are mustard, pea, beet, coriander, sunflower, and radish. But don’t confuse them with sprouts, which are even younger, grown in water and have probably gone off in the bottom of your fridge after your one attempt at an alfalfa sandwich. They are also not ‘baby vegetables’ which are weeks older and basically just short vegetables, no matter how cute.

Microgreens, on the other hand, are a culinary trend that’s here to stay and for good reason.

If you’ve scrolled through foodie pages on Instagram over the last few years, you’ll have seen these greens sprinkled over gourmet salads, soups, sandwiches, and smoothies. But microgreens aren’t just garnishes, and they’re certainly not that useless sprig of curly parsley we would rip off our food as kids and leave forgotten on our plates.

Often called ‘vegetable confetti’, microgreens are colourful and beautiful, adding not just dimension to a dish, but some texture and a massive punch of flavour. Because of their miniature size, their flavour content is highly concentrated, allowing your garnishes to become an essential element in your dish (2).

Add the spicy bite of mustard or the peppery heat of radish to your avocado toast and you’ll bring it back from its descent into the mainstream. Shake things up by topping a chocolate tart or strawberry cheesecake with the fruity zing of basil or delicate freshness of mint. Better yet, use a variety of microgreens to bulk out your next salad instead of that tasteless and nutritionally pathetic iceberg lettuce we all seem to cling to. I guarantee you’ll feel like the king of culinary cool without really trying.

But flavour isn’t the only thing concentrated in these tiny greens. According to early scientific research, the vitamin and mineral levels in microgreens often exceed their full-grown counterparts by five or even nine times (3,4). In fact, a contributor to their stronger taste and brighter colours is their more complex variety of phytonutrients, chemicals produced by plants that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties to help prevent diseases such as diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s, and heart disease (5,6).

In a 2015 study led by Edgar Pinto published in the Journal of Food Composition and Analysis showed that not only does microgreen lettuce have a higher mineral content than mature lettuce, it also contains lower levels of harmful NO3 nitrate (4). This stuff accumulates in fruit and vegetables due to agricultural fertilisers and has been known to cause cancer. But the smaller scale of microgreens means they absorb fewer harmful chemicals before they are harvested.

Microgreens are potent, a bona fide superfood packed not only with the nutrients that prevent disease, but also nutrients necessary for survival (6,7,8). What’s more, there’re so many types to choose from depending on what your body or your tastebuds need.

Don’t get me wrong, we can’t fully replace vegetables with microgreens in our diets. The fibre from vegetables is very much our friend, if you know what I mean. You can certainly achieve optimal health from plain ol’ veg as long as you have a varied diet and eat your daily recommended servings. But let’s be honest, most of us don’t, and microgreens offer a fun low-calorie solution to meet our nutritional requirements.

Chuck a handful of microgreens into your breakfast smoothie and you’ll cover a lot of ground towards your health without much effort and, if you’re counting calories, without much damage.

This is an especially helpful strategy for getting veg into our kids. Either sneak the tiny greens into other food or let them enjoy the pretty confetti and their magic flavours for what they are. The consumption of microgreens, according to Pinto and his colleagues, “could be an important strategy to meet children’s mineral dietary requirements without exposing them to harmful NO3”. (4)

Yet their goodness doesn’t stop there. Microgreen production is also more environmentally sustainable than mature vegetable production. Broccoli microgreens, for example, require 200 times less water than it takes to grow a nutritionally equivalent amount of mature vegetables, and in 95% less time (9). They also don’t need fertilizers, pesticides or the typical energy used in transporting produce from farm to table. These little guys wilt quickly, and so restaurants receive them from local growers still rooted in their soil, only cutting off pieces as they use them. If you ask me, it makes the connection with our food’s origins so much more tangible and the cooking process far more intimate. I told you, green is good for the soul.

Microgreens are kick-ass, and the world is finally catching on. Although they’ve been used in small ways since the 80s, our growing interest in health and wellness has pulled microgreens from their sprout-munching hippie hidey-hole and smacked them into the centre of the gastronomic world. Now, microgreens are cemented in the menus of Michelin-starred chefs around the globe like Heston Blumenthal and Raymond Blanc. Heck, even the award-winning lobster ravioli that put Gordon Ramsey on the map is topped with microgreens.

However, this trend doesn’t stop inside fancy restaurants. In 2020, Pinterest searches for microgreens went up by 223% (10). On Instagram, #microgreens has 588,000 posts, which is more than double #yummyfoods, whatever that means. It seems people are angling for vegetable confetti, naming it the new Millennial food. Soon we will be demanding microgreens not just from fine dining, but from our local restaurants and favourite corner cafes.

Now, I’m sure my words have enlightened and enchanted you to the power of these magic greens, à la Jack and the tiny beanstalks. But it’s food we’re talking about here, and none of it matters until you taste them for yourself. So, find a fancy restaurant or a hipster burger bar and eat the magic greens. You might not see any giants, but I swear you’ll strike gold.