When a "health food" trend hits the tables, it's hard not to feel a little cynical. But a new animal study by US Department of Agriculture researchers may pave the way to proving that red cabbage microgreens, now popular in restaurants and on cooking shows, offer a way to reduce weight gain and high blood pressure, and may protect against heart diseases (CVDs) – the leading cause of death globally.
Microgreens are the tender young shoots of vegetable plants or herbs that are often used in salads or omelets, or as a garnish for pizzas or pastas. Not to be confused with sprouts (which are eaten at an earlier stage), microgreens are grown in soil and sunlight and are given a week or two to grow their first set of leaves before harvesting.
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Microgreens are around an inch long, intensely flavored, and come in such a wide range of colors they are also known as "vegetable confetti". They can be grown from plant varieties such as red cabbage, broccoli, sunflower, cauliflower, chia and buckwheat.
A few years ago, a University of Maryland study found that microgreens contained four to 40 times more concentrated nutrients than their mature counterparts. Red cabbage, for instance, had 40 times more vitamin E and six times more vitamin C than mature red cabbage. Other studies showed that fully-grown red cabbage can help guard against excessive cholesterol levels.
This led the cardiologist, Thomas T.Y. Wang and colleagues to design a new study using mice to determine if the red cabbage microgreens have a similar, lesser or even greater effect on cholesterol levels than their grown-up counterparts.
The study was performed on 60 mice, because mice tend to develop obesity-related health issues, such as high cholesterol and other risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
The researchers divided 60 mice into six numbered feeding groups, and for eight weeks, fed the groups as follows: (1) low-fat diet; (2) high-fat diet; (3) low-fat diet + 1.09 percent red cabbage microgreens; (4) low-fat diet + 1.66 percent mature red cabbage; (5) high-fat diet + 1.09 percent red cabbage microgreens; (6) high-fat diet + 1.66 percent mature red cabbage.
The results showed that both the microgreen and mature red cabbage diets reduced weight gain and levels of liver cholesterol in the mice on high-fat diets. The microgreens also helped lower LDL, or "bad" cholesterol and liver triglyceride levels in the animals.
Additionally, the study showed that the red cabbage microgreens contained more naturally occurring polyphenols and glycosylates than their mature counterpart. These are the nutrients found in blueberries and cruciferous vegetables that can potentially lower cholesterol and are thought to play a role in the prevention of degenerative diseases such as cancer.
It's worth keeping in mind, of course, that mice and humans are completely different animals with different metabolisms and immune systems, so more research with human subjects is needed.
But given that a range of studies on humans and animals already supports the consumption of vegetables to combat heart disease, the optimistic view is that this study suggests that red cabbage microgreens can reduce weight gain and high blood pressure, which in turn could help protect against CVD.
You can read the report on this research at the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.