The gourmet greens that garnish high-end restaurant plates may have the potential to improve global nutritional security, according to a new study.
These tiny yet mighty “microgreens” can thrive in soilless production systems and in small indoor spaces with or without artificial light, according to the study published in Acta Horticulturae, the journal of the International Society for Horticultural Science. Microgreens are a fresh and nutritious vegetable source even in areas that are considered food deserts — which the researchers said is particularly relevant during a pandemic that has disrupted food supply chains.
“The current COVID-19 pandemic revealed the vulnerability of our food system and the need to address malnutrition issues and nutrition-security inequality, which could be exacerbated by potential future emergencies or catastrophes,” lead author Francesco Di Gioia, an assistant professor at Penn State University, said in a press statement. “Nutrient-dense microgreens have great potential as an efficient food-resilience resource.”
Microgreens feature a rich variety of colors, shapes, textures and flavors, and sprout from many vegetables, as well as herbs and other wild edible species, a news release accompanying the study said. In addition to their dense antioxidant and nutrient content, these tiny plants offer a wealth of advantages to growers — including their ability to thrive in challenging environmental conditions using simple tools available in a kitchen.
These fresh shoots have a short growth cycle — sowing to harvest time frames range from six to 28 days — and can be grown in soil or soilless systems, with or without the use of fertilizers, the study said. Their ability to thrive in “peri-urban areas of the world” has transformed microgreens into “a cash crop produced in various protected culture systems,” the authors found.
While microgreens do not yet have a legal definition, the authors said that they generally correspond to the full development of “cotyledonary leaves,” or the appearance of a plant’s first true leaves. They are distinct from sprouts and baby leaf greens, according to the study.
Different microgreen species contain vitamins (including A, C, E, and K), polyphenols, glucosinolates and omega-3 fatty acids, as well as fibers and minerals. Their relatively small footprint and short growth time means they can easily be produced at home and mixed together, Di Gioia told The Hill.
“Once you do that you have the advantage of harvesting the greens directly in your kitchen at the time when you are eating them,” he said, adding that raw vegetables offer more biological activity than cooked ones.
Some common microgreens come from arugula, basil, radishes, carrots, broccoli, cilantro, chrysanthemums, celery, kohlrabi, cabbage, peas, sunflowers and wheatgrass.
Although global access to food has improved over the past half century, the researchers said that this is not necessarily the case for nutritional availability. Nutrition security still presents a challenge for billions of people around the world, and the situation has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Improving the availability of fresh and nutrient-dense greens in regions and areas most affected by undernutrition or malnutrition is a key priority and can contribute, at least in part, to solving this long-standing global social and health issue,” the authors wrote.
The pandemic has led to increased consumer awareness about food sources and consumption habits, but not everyone has had the ability to purchase fresh vegetables or access to garden space, the study noted.
Microgreens might be able to offer “a simple short-term solution, even partially, to address nutrition insecurity” at the household level and in situations of emergency, the authors wrote.
Scientists at both NASA and the European Space Agency are also investigating the possibility of cultivating microgreens as a source of fresh nutrients on long-term space missions, and are currently exploring how to grow such plants in microgravity, according to the study.
During future emergency situations, Di Gioia proposed the idea of distributing microgreen production kits that could be prepared and stored, and then made available as necessary.
“The idea of developing a kit like that came to my mind when I was still working in Florida, and it was time of Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria that caused a lot of issues in Puerto Rico,” Di Gioia told The Hill.
The kit, he explained, would fit inside a box and contain instructions, seeds and the materials necessary to grow microgreens. The box would be “stored and ready to go for these emergency situations and could be delivered to the population in need during an emergency or chronic situation,” he added.
“We have a situation of hunger even in Western countries,” he continued. “This kit could be provided to schools, to people in need.”
The main challenges associated with producing and distributing such kits are both the expense of the necessary materials and the need to ensure that seeds remain viable in storage, Di Gioia said.
Organizations like the Federal Emergency Management Agency or international cooperation agencies might be suitable candidates for implementing distribution.
But microgreens could also offer a business opportunity to local farmers and entrepreneurs due to their higher price point and their unique nutritional profiles that vary based on geography, according to the professor.
“There is even space for producing varieties that are local, that you might not have here in the U.S., but could be produced in other places,” he said.