Beyond the garnish: Will a new type of produce get the microgreen light?

Microgreens. They’re leafy green vegetables that are relatively new to the dining room, but a study by a Colorado State University team indicates that they will be welcome company at the table.

“You’ve probably heard of sprouts and baby greens,” said lead researcher and registered dietitian nutritionist Sarah Ardanuy Johnson, an assistant professor and director of the Functional Foods & Human Health Laboratory in CSU’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. “These are somewhere in the middle.”

Microgreens are young and tender leafy greens of most vegetables, grains, herbs and flowers that are harvested when their first leaves appear. Their rapid maturity of a few weeks and affinity for controlled-environment agriculture (also known as indoor farming) means they use very little water and can be harvested quickly. It makes them a model of sustainability: They can be grown indoors, year-round, in cities and rural communities, in greenhouses, warehouses, vertical farms and even homes.

“I came across microgreens and had never heard of them before,” said Johnson, who initially studied environmental science and ecology as an undergraduate before realizing her true academic passion was in nutrition and food science. “The need for our food to be more sustainable is greater than ever. I love the idea that they can be grown in an urban environment, indoors in big cities and smaller towns. We can’t just grow everything in the soil outside anymore, and we need to conserve what natural resources we still have.”

Nutritional benefits
Johnson described them as leafy greens that pack a punch. They carry fewer food safety concerns than sprouts because they are grown in an environment with less moisture and, unlike sprouts, the roots of microgreens are removed during harvest. Nutritionally, they have been shown to have higher concentrations of phytochemicals and nutrients like beta-carotene (which can be converted to Vitamin A) than mature plants.

“Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of blindness worldwide,” Johnson said, explaining that microgreens may become a key food source for preventing nutrient deficiencies and promoting global health and environmental sustainability. “That potential is pretty cool.”

But she and her fellow researchers wanted to find out if microgreens are acceptable to consumers, and possible factors in how much consumers like or dislike them. They sought to understand if microgreens’ appearance, taste and other considerations make them an appealing addition to people’s plates. The answer? Signs point to more and more people exhibiting a microgreen palate.

Results of the study were published in March in the Journal of Food Science. Johnson’s team surveyed 99 people about their reactions to six different types of microgreens: arugula, broccoli, bull’s blood beet, red cabbage, red garnet amaranth and tendril pea. The microgreens were grown in the CSU Horticulture Center. The participants, who didn’t know in advance what they would be trying, answered a variety of questions about things like flavor, aroma, texture and appearance.

Read more at Colorado State University (Jeff Dodge)

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