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As part of their work that led to the Seven Countries Study and more common knowledge about the Mediterranean Diet, Ancel and Margaret Keys observed what ordinary people ate.  Among fruits, vegetables, unrefined grains, and healthy fats, they found a wide variety of legumes. 

Legumes?  What are they?  Americans don’t generally use the term “legumes,” defined as plants that bear fruit that grows in pods.  The family of legumes includes pulses (edible seeds that grow in a pod such as beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas) plus groundnuts, better known as peanuts, and soybeans.  

peanuts being harvested in field

As noted by the Australian Grains & Legumes Nutrition Council, “although peanuts are technically considered a legume (they grow below ground which makes them more closely related to legumes, such as peas and lentils), their nutritional composition is more similar to a tree nut, such as an almond, cashew or walnut.”

Nutrition? While they have differences, pulses and peanuts have a great deal in common in terms of nutrition. Legumes provide the best source of concentrated protein in the plant kingdom, according to The Peanut Institute’s website. Beyond protein, there’s plenty of great nutrition news about legumes:  legumes are high in fiber and phytonutrients, low in sodium (as long as canned legumes are fully rinsed and drained), have a low glycemic index, and for those who need to worry, legumes are gluten free.  The unsaturated fat make-up of peanuts helps link them to a reduced risk of heart disease, according to many nutrition science studies, and the National Peanut Board’s website points out that studies continue to prove the link between peanut consumption and reduced risk of heart disease.

Sustainability? As Oldways President Sara Baer-Sinnott recently wrote in US News & World Report“Food is personal.  Yet our choices have global impacts.”  In 2020, to address globally agreed scientific targets for healthy diets and sustainable food production, the EAT Lancet Commission convened 37 leading scientists from 16 countries in various disciplines—including human health, agriculture, political sciences and environmental sustainability—to develop global scientific targets for healthy diets and sustainable food production. This was the first attempt to set universal scientific targets for the food system that apply to all people and the planet.

Legumes can play a big role in achieving these scientific targets for healthy people and a healthy planet.  The EAT Lancet Report recommends 75 grams of legumes (about 1 cup cooked) every day in order to transition to healthy diets and sustainable food systems by 2050.  

As explained on the website of Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health:

“Legumes have a range of characteristics that make them a relatively sustainable crop. For example, legumes release up to seven times less greenhouse gas emissions per area compared to other crops, and can sequester carbon in soils. They can also make their own nitrogen from the atmosphere, thus reducing the application of nitrogen fertilizers. This leaves nitrogen-rich residues in the soil after harvesting; a benefit for the next crop planted in its place. According to the FAO, drought-resistant species of legumes can be of particular benefit to dry environments where food security is often a challenge. They can also help minimize food waste, since pulses can be dried and stored for relatively long periods of time without losing their nutritional value.”

colorful lentils on blue wood

In a recent paper published in Trends in Plant Science, Professor Mark Adams of Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia, reveals how  “growing legumes can help reduce water and fertiliser demand and help meet nutritional needs.” According to Adams, “the beauty of legumes is that their biological nitrogen fixation is self-regulating. Once the plant has enough, it shuts it down. It’s a much more sustainable system.”  He also addresses the culinary aspects, namely,  “Having chick-pea curry for dinner instead of beef vindaloo would remove yet another step and the associated greenhouse gases. [related to producing more meat]”

Consumption trends.  Americans have a long way to go to meet the EAT Lancet goal of 1 cup (about 75 grams dry) of legumes per day.  According to the USDA Economic Research Service, in 2017 Americans consumed 11.7 pounds of legumes per year.  In order to reach the EAT Lancet goal, Americans would need to consume more than 60 pounds per year.  In other words, to meet the EAT Lancet Goal, Americans will need to eat more than 5 times the amount of legumes that we’re eating now!  How to do this?  It’s easy and delicious with the Mediterranean Diet!  

chickpeas and parsley in wooden bowl

Mediterranean Cooking with Legumes. The cuisines of countries around the Mediterranean have an incredible variety of delicious and flavor-filled dishes that showcase the versatility of legumes, whether they be beans, peas, lentils, chickpeas and peanuts.  Here are some of our favorites, featuring a wide range of legumes.  

Fresh Fava Bean Soup: It’s springtime, which means it is fava bean time.  This soup makes us think of the region of Puglia.  This recipe from Oldways founder K. Dun Gifford uses fresh fava beans, or broad beans.  These beans are in season in the spring.  If you can’t find fresh fava beans, look for frozen favas in the grocery store and thaw them before beginning the recipe.

Hummus: While grocery stores carry hummus in many, many flavors these days, it’s easy to make hummus at home.  Here’s a simple hummus recipe, using canned chickpeas, great when you’re short on time.  Still high in flavor and creaminess, use this as a nutrient-rich dip, spread, and topping for sandwiches, wraps, salads and more.  It’s also a great substitute for mayonnaise.  

Tuna with White Beans, Celery and Peppers: This is a perfect meal for a weekday dinner when you need to rely on what’s in the pantry (Beans! Tuna!) It tastes delicious cold, so bring leftovers to work.  It’s filled with protein, healthy Omega-3 fatty acids and flavor! 

Aleppo-style Red Pepper and Peanut Dip: This muhummara-inspired dip combines roasted red peppers and peanuts instead of traditional walnuts.  Serve it with pita, spread it on toast, or use it as a sauce for kebabs, grilled meat, fish or vegetables.

Peanut Dukkah: To enjoy this peanut and spice blend, dip a piece of bread into olive oil and then into the dukkah.  You can also enjoy dukkah as a seasoning for roasted vegetables or as a crust on roasted meats or fish.

Crete’s Mixed Greens and Tomatoes with Black-Eyed Peas:  Paula Wolfert is one of a kind. She is as gentle and sharing as her books are interesting and thorough. She learned her craft in the kitchens and homes of Morocco, southwest France and Turkey, and then came home to figure out how Americans could approximate the tastes of those very local cuisines in the United States. This is Paula’s favorite recipe for greens, adapted from her book, Mediterranean Grains and Greens. This recipe makes us recall fondly her Culinaria trips with Oldways to Turkey, Greece and southern Italy.  

Wild Rice and Lentil Salad: This main-dish salad combines flavors and textures that can easily be adapted depending on the season. While this recipe calls for arugula and vine-ripened tomatoes, which are at their peak in the summer, it is equally delicious in the fall or winter substituting kale and pine nuts. The key is the rice and lentil foundation, which gives it substance and absorbs the dressing to keep the whole dish moist and savory. Excellent for a picnic or potluck, it is ideally made early in the day and left to marinate until lunch or dinner. 

multiple legumes beans and pulses

In addition to being delicious, healthy and sustainable, legumes possess two additional benefits. Legumes are affordable and easy to cook with. Dried beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas, their canned cousins, as well as peanuts are well within many families’ budgets, and using them couldn’t be easier. Don’t believe us? Try the recipes above, or those in the recipe boxes with this Fresh Friday. Bon appétit  Buon appetite! Buen apetito! Bom apetite! Bil hana! Kali oreksi! Be’te-avon! Afiyet olsun!

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