Bean sprouts have been cultivated in Asia for thousands of years and were bought to New Zealand with the first Asian immigrants in the Gold Rush days, although weren’t commercially available until 1981. This was the result of a sprout renaissance brought about by the healthy-eating hippy movement in the 1970s.

Alfalfa is by far the most popular sprout in New Zealand. They have a fresh crisp taste and are often combined with other flavours such as radish and onion. Yellowish alfalfa doesn't mean that it is old, just that the leaves have not been exposed to enough light and the green chlorophyll has not yet developed. Snow pea shoots have the characteristic taste of snow peas and have long white shoots. Adzuki (or aduki) sprouts are small and reddish-brown with short white shoots and no leaves, have a nutty taste and can be used like nuts in salads. Mung bean sprouts have a long shoot and a pale green-yellow coat, while baby mung sprouts have only a small white root and an olive green coat on the bean. Lentil sprouts are small, flat and blue-grey or light brown coloured seeds with a short shoot.

The major nutrients in sprouted beans and seeds are the B group vitamins, especially thiamine, and some contain small amounts of minerals including iron and potassium. Some, such as alfalfa, broccoli and snow pea shoots, have high water content and therefore a lower nutrient and energy (kilojoule) content.  While others, such as adzuki and mung bean, contain more dry matter and carbohydrate and consequently more nutrients and energy (kilojoules). Sprouts provide a range of phytonutrients varying depending on the type of sprout. For example, glucosinolates are found in broccoli sprouts and saponins in alfalfa sprouts, however, phenolic compounds appear to be commonly contained, especially flavonoids.

When buying, look for fresh, crisp sprouts that are free from moisture. Avoid any with brown or grey discolouration on the shoots. Refrigerate in a well vented plastic container or bag. Sprouted beans and seeds are nearly always packaged in a special snap-top plastic container, which should be kept closed so the sprouts don't dry out. Correctly stored the sprouts will last between five and 14 days.

Bean sprouts are often used in oriental cooking, salads and sandwiches or used as edible garnishes. Chef Greg Piner is a member of the NZ Chefs Culinary Olympic Squad, and group executive chef at Dunedin’s Vault 21 and Prohibition Smokehouse. He uses mung beans and pea shoots in his dish of Tokyo dry battered prawns with smoked chilli dressing and avocado salad.