First it was bean sprouts.

Then it wasn’t bean sprouts.

Then it was organic bean sprouts, though there was no microbiological smoking gun to implicate them in the superbug that has killed 30 and sickened almost 3,000 people in Europe during the last two weeks.

So. To sprout or not to sprout?

If sprouts do prove the ultimate culprit in Europe, it will have been because of one particular batch of contaminated seed, with no evidence of anything more, says Donald Schaffner, a professor of food science at Rutgers University.

“I don’t think U.S. consumers need to freak out about sprouts,” adds Robert Brackett, director of the Institute for Food Safety and Health at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Sprouts develop from soaking seeds over several days in a controlled environment indoors. Like other produce harvested in fields, the starter seeds for sprouts risk contamination from a range of sources, animal to human. The growing environment that is used — warm water — can also play a role in breeding bad bacteria.

On these shores, sprouts have not been excepted from the growing list of edibles — spinach, tomatoes, peanut butter, hamburger, eggs — that have caused food-borne illness outbreaks during the last several decades. More than 2,500 Americans fell ill from contaminated sprouts between 1990 and 2010, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. But Lola Russell, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control, notes that the 30 or more outbreaks in the United States since the mid-1990s were drastically less severe than the killer bug in Germany.

Think about it this way, says Phillip Tarr, professor of molecular microbiology at Washington University in St. Louis: Unless a food sold to the public has been irradiated or cooked, “it cannot be considered to be 100 percent microbiologically safe.”

Does that mean you shouldn’t eat fresh fruits or vegetables?

Sprout growers “have worked very hard in the U.S. to manage this problem and keep it in control,” says Schaffner. “By and large, I think they’re doing a fairly good job.”

Natural-foods advocates have long touted the nutritional virtues of sprouts, a generic term for seeds germinated for a short spell. Most sprouts were eaten raw, and consumers looking for variety beyond the dainty alfalfa and meaty mung bean had to sprout at home. But in the past five years, sprout varieties in markets have expanded, and moved beyond the produce aisle.

“Now we have things like pea shoots and sunflower, buckwheat, radish, broccoli and cabbage,” says Steve Meyerowitz, a.k.a. Sproutman, who has sold sprouting seeds since the 1970s. “The kind of person that considers including these foods in their diet has also broadened. It used to be that only health-food nuts would eat sprouts.”

According to the Center for Culinary Development, a product development firm, more than 100 new sprouted foods have entered the retail market since 2006. Sprouted nuts make up snack mixes. Sprouted grains go into granola. Sprouted whole-grain flour becomes pasta and pretzels.Jane Andrews, nutrition and product-labeling manager for Wegmans, says the biggest driver is interest in unprocessed foods. As she puts it, “What’s fresher than something that is sprouted right in front of you?”

“Sprouted” is supposed to connote an ingredient captured at a stage of germination considered optimal for flavor and nutritional value. The marketing term is not regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, though, so cultivation standards do not apply.

Andrews, a registered dietitian, says she has not seen lab-tested proof of claims that sprouted foods are more nutritious than mature plants and whole, un-sprouted grains. “I don’t have confidence yet that it’s not mostly hyped,” she says.

When a seed sprouts, enzymes begin breaking down complex proteins and carbohydrates into simpler sugars and amino acids, offering “some advantage” in digestibility, says Sean O’Keefe, professor of food science at Virginia Tech.

A small body of research in Asia suggests that some sprouted foods, particularly brown rice, have health benefits. And in 1992, a Johns Hopkins University research team discovered an antioxidant-boosting compound in broccoli sprouts.

But the field is relatively un-mined, says Rui Hai Liu, a Cornell University professor of food science whose lab is researching sprouted grains. Nutritional value varies by seed and length of sprouting time. “Generally, sprouted foods can provide a new source for phytochemicals and antioxidants in the human diet,” says Liu. “But in my opinion, consumers should eat a wide variety of foods for the balanced diet.”

To get a sprout, you bathe a seed in warm water, rinsing several times a day for several days.

“It’s not terribly hard,” says Rob Halligan, who cultivates radish and mustard sprouts at his Kalorama home. Selling sprouts is a different story, as the IT consultant learned last year when he started plotting a small business to sell his crop from a vintage bicycle.

Because of the concerns about bacteria, some jurisdictions, including the District, ban the sale of sprouts grown in residential kitchens that aren’t subject to food-safety inspections. Home sprouters stress that good seed provenance from a trusted source, along with regular rinsing and draining of seeds, is crucial to avoiding mold and bacteria.

Sprouts harvested after a week or more, which are usually called “shoots,” can be grown in dirt, making them an attractive niche product for small farmers supplying farmers markets and restaurant kitchens.

The pea shoot, for one, is an anchor crop for Tuscarora Organic Growers, a Pennsylvania produce cooperative that supplies area restaurants.

It’s typically deployed as a garnish. Ruffino Bautista, chef de cuisine at Logan Circle’s Estadio, takes a different tack, sauteing pea shoots with olive oil and garlic before finishing the mound with a palmful of sea salt.

More intriguing shoots appear when the season is right. Rodney Scruggs, executive chef at the Occidental, recently began amping up his crab cake with a yellow spray of corn shoots. Among diners, “There’s some trepidation at first,” he says. “After I explain it’s like popcorn, it’s edible, people go, ‘Wow, that is great.’ ”

Pea shoots have been relatively easy to find at specialty or farmers markets, but lucky was the customer who could source a corn shoot. That might change. Bob Rust, secretary of the International Sprout Growers Association, says commercial growers are beginning to diversify into varieties like sunflower shoots, beet and broccoli sprouts.

Propelling the creation of new sprouted foods, meanwhile, are whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa and spelt, which, after sprouting, are dehydrated and packaged to be shelf-stable. Sprouted whole grains cook more quickly, and their flavor profiles are often sweeter than traditional grains. They can also have a longer shelf life and yet can be cooked like any other grain.

“A lot of times the big confusion for people is, ‘Okay, I get that it’s healthy and convenient, but now what do I do with it?’” says Esha Ray, chief executive of Enray, which has manufactured sprouted quinoa, brown rice and lentils under the TruRoots brand name for the last two years. “There’s an intimidation factor which I’m working hard to get rid of.”

Perhaps most intriguing of all is the emergence of sprouted whole-grain flour. Peter Reinhart, the artisan baker and author of eight books on bread, says he has been “blown away” by the results of his recent experimentation with the flour.

Sprouting appears to eliminate the need for laborious pre-fermentation that bread bakers deploy in part to sweeten their whole-grain loaves. “I’ve been able to make 100 percent whole-grain products that taste like white-flour products because they’re so sweet,” says Reinhart. “I think this is the beginning of a whole new way of doing flour.”

Only a handful of mills produce it, though. King Arthur Flour began selling a version online last fall with good results, according to a spokeswoman. The better-known brand is Essential Eating. Founder Janie Quinn had been a home sprouter for a decade when she partnered with a miller more than five years ago.

Shiloh Farms, a Pennsylvania-based company, is the only outlet for her whole-grain wheat and spelt flours, selling them in East Coast stores and online. But Quinn says she is in talks to expand the licensing of her proprietary flour technology.

In the meantime, don’t be surprised to see more sprouted foods appearing in mainstream outlets. Nasoya’s new sprouted tofu, for example, went on sale at Giant and Harris Teeter this past winter. Costco stores on the East Coast are rolling out a TruRoots sprouted bean trio, Ray says. And Reinhart is assisting with plans to open a pizzeria in Charlotte, N.C., selling sprouted pies.

So. To sprout, then?

In the end, perhaps it’s like most other adventures in everyday eating: a risk and an opportunity.

Hinman will join the Free Range chat on June 15 at noon.


Sprouted Mung Beans with Walnuts and Dill

Salad of Sunflower Sprouts with Ginger Vinaigrette

Sprouted Berry Cobbler

Sprouted Carrot Cake Cupcakes