Alfalfa sprouts are the young shoots of the alfalfa plant, eaten within four to seven days of germination. Along with many other sprouts, they are eaten as a health food and can be found sprinkled on sandwiches, mixed with salads, or added to stir fries. Since the seeds can be germinated in controlled environments year round, there is no specific season in which they are grown. In addition to being available at the store, it is also possible to grow the sprouts at home with minimal equipment.
Sprouts in general tend to be very nutritionally rich, because they contain much of the energy the plant needs to grow up. Alfalfa sprouts are high in vitamins A, B, C, E, and K, along with an assortment of antioxidants and amino acids such as canavanine. In addition, they contain substances known as phytochemicals, which are not nutritionally necessary but appear to benefit human health.
Many people in the health food community have made a number of health claims about alfalfa sprouts. These claims have yet to be substantiated, in most cases, because there is incomplete evidence. The sprouts certainly do have nutritional benefits, but they may not be the wonder food they are claimed to be. Canavanine, for example, may actually be toxic in large amounts, according to studies by the National Institutes of Health.
Commercially produced alfalfa sprouts have also been identified as a source of potential foodborne illness by the United States Food and Drug Administration FDA). Unless the sprouts are cultivated very carefully and handled well, they can become a breeding ground for bacteria. This becomes especially true once they leave the grocery store, where they may sit in a refrigerator for several days before being eaten. When grown at home, however, these sprouts are usually a healthy addition to the diet.
To grow alfalfa, individuals can put a tablespoon (about 15 grams) of seeds specifically designed for sprouting into a wide mouthed glass jar and pour enough water into the jar to cover the seeds. A sheet of cheesecloth or other breathable fabric should be stretched across the top of the jar and held in place with a rubber band, and then the jar should be put it in a dark cupboard overnight. In the morning, the water should be drained off and the seeds rinsed by adding water and swirling them around. After rinsing, the person should drain the seeds again and put them back into the cupboard. This process should be repeated three times a day until the fourth day, when the seeds have started to turn into sprouts. At this point, the individual should rinse and drain the seeds as usual and then expose them to sunlight. They should be used within three days.