Date: Tue, 12 Jul 1994 21:05:55 EDT
Sender: "Medicinal and Aromatic Plants discussion list <HERB.TREARN.BITNET>
Subject: Re: Alfalfa--good or bad?

On Thu, 7 Jul 1994, Jack van Luik wrote:
>A few years back there was a flap about problems with alfalfa sprouts. To compete with surrounding seeds, these give off some natural herbicide, I seem to recall, which was not good for people. Anyone have any current info on whether alfalfa is good or bad?

The key word is "seeds". James Duke, in Handbook of Medicinal Plants (CRC Press, 1985), in a paragraph labeled "Toxicity", says "[Alfalfa] seeds are reported to contain trypsin inhibitors", which may or may not refer to canavanine (see below). He also refers to bovine reproductive disturbances that may have been caused by the known estrogenlike response to coumestrol and four isoflavones in alfalfa forage. No such human response is mentioned.

According to Michael Castleman in The Healing Herbs (Rodale Press, 1991), "No one should ever eat alfalfa seeds" because they contain the "toxic amino acid canavanine" which, when consumed in large quantities over a long period of time, can build up enough to damage blood cells, and can cause or contribute to the onset of systemic lupus erythematosus and reactivate that disease in people who are in remission.

BUT WAIT! This doesn't mean you should throw out all your jars of alfalfa seeds and boycott the health food store or deli that puts alfalfa sprouts on their sandwiches. For one thing, the transition from seed to sprout involves a drastic chemical change, and the only reference by either author to serious toxicity specifically pointed to the seeds and, in Castleman, to their excessive use. Neither Castleman nor Duke recommends against eating alfalfa sprouts, and in fact both extol their nutritional benefits, and both mention that alfalfa LEAF is on the FDA's GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe) list.

It's been said many times, but it's worth repeating:


With some foods, it doesn't take much to cause problems; with some, it takes quite a lot. Obviously, the former are more dangerous, but you can't say that "more dangerous" means "toxic" (and therefore to be shunned) any more than you can say that "less dangerous" means "nontoxic" (and therefore to be consumed in quantity).

I hope I haven't insulted your intelligence, Jack, but whenever someone asks whether an herb is "good or bad", I just can't help jumping on this soapbox and voting for shades of gray instead of just black or white. Simple as the latter would be, in most cases it just ain't the way life is.