Alfalfa Sprouts Aren’t For Everyone, But They May Be Right For You3 years ago | Nutrition
By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder
If you are like me, you don’t have alfalfa in the produce drawer of your refrigerator. But that is about to change, because I discovered the potential health benefits of this plant.
Alfalfa, scientifically known as Medicago sativa, has been grown as a livestock feed for hundreds of years. It is actually a legume that belongs to the pea plant family. Reportedly, the word “alfalfa” comes from the Arabic phrase “al-fac-facah” which means “father of all foods.”
“Alfalfa is the most frequently grown forage legume and the highest-yielding perennial forage crop grown in many countries. It produces more protein per unit area than other forage legumes and can be grown alone or in combination with various grass species,” according to the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment.
The University of Kentucky states that “[A]lfalfa provides dairy and beef cattle, sheep, and horses with a highly nutritious and digestible forage. Alfalfa contains more crude protein, calcium, and vitamin A than early-cut grasses or corn silage.”
Alfalfa forage is also rich in minerals such as phosphorus and magnesium.
Luckily, us humans too can incorporate alfalfa into our diet without having to snack on alfalfa hay like a cow in the pasture. Alfalfa sprouts are made from germinated alfalfa seeds, and are readily available in the produce section of your local grocery store.
You can put alfalfa sprouts on a sandwich or burger for some added texture. They are also great mixed in a salad, sprinkled over an omelette and you can even add them to a smoothie. Alfalfa sprouts are pretty mild in taste but have a slightly nutty taste.
Adding alfalfa sprouts to everyday meals, like salads and sandwiches, is not only a great way to spruce them up a bit but also add extra nutrients, such as calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, folate, vitamin A and vitamin K, which are nutrients we all need to stay healthy. (You can check out the nutritional value of one cup of alfalfa sprouts here).
Other potential health benefits of alfalfa?
- Alfalfa may help lower bad cholesterol.
Alfalfa is rich in saponins, which are bitter compounds naturally found in many vegetables, herbs, legumes and quinoa. They actually act as natural pest control, because out in nature birds and insects may be turned off by the bitter taste the saponins produce.
“Saponins promote cardiovascular health due to their ability to lower cholesterol and body fat levels. Researchers believe that these chemicals inhibit cholesterol absorption by binding with bile salts,” according to to one source.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) discusses a study in which monkeys that were given alfalfa saponins exhibited that their bad cholesterol levels decreased while their good cholesterol levels did not.
“The data suggest that alfalfa top saponins may be of use in the treatment of patients with hypercholesterolemia, but long-term studies on possible toxicity are needed before this therapy can be recommended for humans,” reports the NIH.
There is some concern that saponins in general are toxic, however, “...normal intake of the majority of saponins is not toxic to humans, as evidenced by the fact that saponin intake by vegetarians is in the range of 100 to 200/day,” according to this source.
- Alfalfa may help with diabetes.
“Alfalfa stimulates insulin secretion and improves insulin function in reduction of plasma glucose concentration,” the NIH reports.
“High concentrations of manganese in alfalfa have been reported as a possible reason of hypoglycemia [low blood sugar]. Oral administration of alfalfa seeds triggered reduction of blood lipoprotein level in diabetics…”
- Alfalfa may help combat systemic inflammation.
The majority of medical professionals firmly believe that so many diseases, including cancer, heart disease, depression and dementia, are caused by chronic inflammation throughout the body. And inflammation is caused by a pro-inflammatory diet, environmental pollutants, smoking, drinking too much alcohol and even stress.
So we all need anti-inflammatory foods, such as alfalfa sprouts (and other plant foods), that contain powerful antioxidants and nutrients that may help fight inflammation.
There are also alfalfa supplements.
Dried alfalfa leaves can be turned into a supplement in pill form. Some sources say this particular supplement may help with other health issues such as arthritis, indigestion, excessive production of urine, excessive bruising or bleeding and more.
More research is needed to determine this, but what I think what is most important to know is that no one should take alfalfa supplements without the advice of a competent healthcare professional.
Furthermore, there are certain groups of people who should not consume alfalfa whether it is from eating alfalfa sprouts or taking a supplement.
“Alfalfa is considered safe when taken by healthy people. Alfalfa seems to increase certain immune system functions,” according to the University of Rochester Medical Center.
For example, “Alfalfa tablets have been associated with reports of a lupus-like syndrome or lupus flares, with symptoms that include antinuclear antibodies in the blood, muscle pains, fatigue, abnormal immune system function, and kidney abnormalities. These reactions are believed to be caused by the amino acid L-canavanine, which is in alfalfa seeds and sprouts (but not in the leaves),” reports the Lupus Foundation of America.
In addition to this, alfalfa contains phytoestrogens which may behave like some human hormones.
“In fact, alfalfa phytoestrogens caused the growth of estrogen-dependent breast cancer cells. Alfalfa seeds also contain a toxic amino acid, L-canavanine. Levels of this amino acid vary widely across various cultivations of plants, and decrease as the plant matures. It is thought that this amino acid may be responsible for alfalfa’s ability to cause a relapse of lupus symptoms in patients who are in remission from the disease, and large levels of L-canavanine from alfalfa supplementation may have additional detrimental effects in humans,” according to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
The Center says that patients with hormone-sensitive cancers should avoid alfalfa.
This information I’m giving isn’t to scare people away from alfalfa. Knowing these things can help us be more proactive about our health as well as make healthier food and supplement choices. But again, always seek the advice of a competent healthcare professional about what foods and supplements you are consuming, especially if you have any existing health issues, are taking any medications or are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Other precautions with alfalfa?
Raw sprouts, like alfalfa sprouts, do carry the risk of foodborne illness (just like other fresh produce and other foods we may eat such as meat and dairy).
However, “Unlike other fresh produce, seeds and beans need warm and humid conditions to sprout and grow. These conditions are also ideal for the growth of bacteria, including Salmonella, Listeria, and E. coli,” according to Foodsafety.gov.
This is why it is recommended that children, elderly people, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems avoid eating alfalfa sprouts.
If you do not fall into any of these groups, it may be safe for you to buy alfalfa sprouts at the grocery store and eat them. To be proactive you can also check out information about food recalls and alerts here.
Enjoy your healthy life!
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