WORDS BY BEATRIX HON PHOTOGRAPHed by GREG ELMS
Loved for its texture and taste, alfalfa is also packed with nutrients. But what about its herbal powers? Scientists are beginning to unlock the hidden benefits behind this humble lunchtime herb What is it?
The alfalfa plant is related to the pea family. Fully grown, it can climb up to 80cm, blooming with violet flowers in summer. Also known as lucerne (when used in farming, for example as a vegetable manure) alfalfa’s name is rooted in the Arabic word that means “father of all foods”. The noodle-like sprouts are salad and sandwich staples, while alfalfa leaves and flowers can be made into herbal tea and drunk up to three times a day. Traditionally, the herb was used to kick-start the appetite and ease indigestion, while alfalfa seeds were made into a paste for treating insect bites and boils.
Beyond the sandwich
As a herbal supplement, alfalfa is available in capsule, powder, tablet and liquid extract form. The herb is rich in protein as well as vitamins A, C and K. It is a nutritious whole food, packed with antioxidants and minerals including magnesium, calcium and iron. Heavy in phyto-oestrogens, alfalfa is used in the treatment of menopause symptoms to combat oestrogen deficiency. It is also a popular tonic for
flushing the body of toxins. Tanya Quod of the Australian Natural Therapists Association backs its use as a herbal detox. “I consider alfalfa extract when treating urinary disorders due to its strong diuretic and alkalising action,” says Quod. “This diuretic effect can also help patients with a combination of fluid retention and high cholesterol.”
Sprouts versus leaves
Although often recognised as raw sprouts, alfalfa leaves shouldn’t be forgotten. Which is best? “Organic sprouts are much more nutritious and easily digested,” says Leah Hechtman, vice-president of the National Herbalists Association of Australia. Different parts of the alfalfa plant have varied uses and effects. In traditional Chinese medicine, fresh alfalfa juice is used to treat kidney stones, while the plant root is said to control fevers and improve jaundice. Alfalfa leaves contain saponin – a compound that might have a cholesterollowering effect.
What are the risks? Alfalfa is generally safe in its natural form. However, the
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amino acid L-canavanine, found in alfalfa seeds and sprouts, has been shown to trigger lupus flare-ups in patients with a history of the disease. Alfalfa supplements are also not advised during pregnancy. As for the herb’s effects on oestrogen, Hechtman warns that excess alfalfa consumption may negatively alter hormone levels.
A 2008 study published in the Pakistan Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences tested the effects of alfalfa on cardiovascular disorders. The study, which was conducted on animals, found dietary alfalfa increased levels of high-density lipoprotein (“good” cholesterol); a reduction in the build-up of fat in the arteries was also noted. A 1992 clinical trial in Budapest tested the effect of alfalfa leaf extract on 20 diabetic patients. Alfalfa was dosed at 1g twice a day, over 16 weeks, with patients showing a 24% drop in blood cholesterol levels after eight weeks, which stabilised in the following months. It’s an area that requires further study, however.
Green thumb alert Alfalfa plants can take up a lot of space, so unless you have a large garden, it’s better simply to sprout the seeds. For nutritious sprouts IN less than a week: 1 Pick a medium-sized jar, at least 9cm in diameter and 15cm in height. 2 Place 1-2 tablespoons of alfalfa seeds in the jar, and soak in tap water for 3 hours. 3 Secure a gauze sheet over the jar with a rubber band. 4 Drain the water, and store the jar out of direct sunlight and at an angle to drain any excess water. 5 Rinse the sprouts 2-3 times each day. 6 Gently shake the jar every now and then to prevent the sprouts from tangling
Alfalfa is rich in protein, and vitamins A, C and K. It’s also packed with minerals and antioxidants
7 Alfalfa sprouts can take up to one week to harvest, so be patient, and rinse before you serve!