Legumes have been sustaining human life for over 10,000 years. All cultures use legumes in their traditional dishes. They are the only cultivated crop that improves the fertility of the soil in which they are grown, through the beneficial bacteria that live on their roots and by drawing nitrogen from the air into the soil.
Legumes are a rich source of protein, carbohydrates, fiber, and B vitamins. They’re low in fat and sodium. Legumes also contain significant amounts of calcium, iron, vitamin E, phosphorus, and potassium. Eating legumes can help lower “bad” (LDL) cholesterol and blood pressure, which helps prevent cardiovascular disease. Legumes produce a slow rise in blood sugar, which is important for controlling diabetes. Both breast cancer and colon cancer can be controlled by hormone-like substances that are activated by digestive inhibitors in legumes. Legumes also help in the regulation of the colon, preventing constipation and hemorrhoids.
Most importantly, legumes lower your risk of coronary heart disease. In a study that examined food intake patterns and risk of death from coronary heart disease, researchers followed more than 16,000 middle-aged men in the U.S., Finland, The Netherlands, Italy, former Yugoslavia, Greece and Japan for 25 years. When researchers analyzed this data in relation to the risk of death from heart disease, they found that higher consumption of legumes was associated with a whopping 82% reduction in risk.
Legumes are seeds. As such, they have evolved protection mechanisms to keep them safe until conditions are desirable for germination. Seeds are difficult to digest so that they pass through an animal’s digestive system intact, and are dropped away from the competition of the parent plant in a nice pile of fertilizer. The properties that render seeds difficult to digest and allow them to lay dormant until conditions are optimal for sprouting are called anti-nutrients. Anti-nutrients are so named because they may deplete more nutrition than they provide. During digestion, our own enzymes work to disassemble food into usable molecules. This begins in the mouth with the enzymes in saliva, and continues throughout the entire digestive tract. Anti-nutrients work by inhibiting our digestive enzymes and preventing them from breaking down food, interfering with digestion. In addition, anti-nutrients bind to minerals like iron, zinc, magnesium, and calcium and prevent our bodies from using them. People who eat a lot of foods that are high in anti-nutrients can suffer from mineral deficiencies and poor bone density. Anti-nutrients include phytic acid , tannins, starches, and lectins, which can irritate the stomach and interfere with digestion. Soaking seeds initiates germination. The sprouting process disables anti-nutrients and increases enzyme. The seeds become digestible and their nutrients become available to our bodies. To soak whole legumes, cover them with enough water to allow them to swell. Allow them to sit at room temperature for at least 7, but ideally 12-24, hours. Drain and then cook.
Legumes can cause gas because they contain a sugar, oligosaccharide, which is a large molecule that is not broken down and absorbed by the lining of the small intestine as other sugars are. This is because the humans do not produce alpha-galactosidase, the enzyme that breaks down oligosaccharides. The oligosaccharides pass through to the large intestine intact, where bacteria break them down. The bacteria produce the gas. You can add alpha-galactosidase in the form of an enzyme supplement just before eating, although it is not appropriate for people with diabetes or the genetic disease galactosemia, as it may lead to an increase in blood sugar level in general and galactose in particular. Because the alpha-galactosidase is grown on a fungus, people who have mold allergies may have an allergic reaction to the supplement. The most popular brand of enzyme, Beano, contains gelatin from fish, so vegetarians may want to use a brand called BeanZyme, which is vegan.
Eating legumes frequently encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria that will digest these sugars in a way that minimizes gas. Soak dry beans overnight to make them more digestible. Discard the soaking water, add fresh water, and cook them until soft. To aid in digestion, you can add to your cooking beans a four-inch strip of the sea vegetable kombu, available dried in the Asian specialty section of grocery stores. For new world beans, such as black beans, teparies, and pintos, try adding a teaspoon of epazote per pound of beans. Epazote is a traditional herb of central America that is believed to help with digestion. For old world legumes, such as chickpeas and lentils, add a teaspoon of ajwain per pound of legumes. Ajwain is a traditional spice of the middle east that also helps with digestion.
Canned legumes can contain unwanted additives, and food cans can be lined with bisphenol A (BPA), a plastic and resin ingredient associated with endocrine disruption. Besides, one pound of dry legumes equals about four 15-ounce cans. You can buy a pound of organic legumes in bulk for around $2.00, which is about the same price as one can. So you’re saving about 75% by going with the dry. Yes, there are energy costs in cooking, but they are small (an estimated 15 cents to run an electric burner for 2 hours; 10 cents to run a slow cooker for 8 hours). And if you purchase your bulk beans in reusable cotton bags, you are saving a lot of energy that would have gone into the production and transport of the can or plastic bag.
I usually cook my legumes in the slow cooker. Every week I make a large batch that I use throughout the week in various ways, and often I have some to freeze.
Some legumes and their ANDI scores:
- Bean Sprouts 177
- Snow Peas or Sugar Snap Peas, raw 106
- Fava Beans 100
- Green Beans, raw 99
- Edamame 98
- Snow Peas or Sugar Snap Peas, cooked 97
- Pinto Beans 86
- Heirloom Beans 84
- Black-Eyed Peas; Tofu 82
- Green Beans, cooked, 81
- Great Northern Beans 77
- Green Beans, canned 76
- Adzuki Beans 74
- Lentils 72
- Green Peas, canned, no salt added 70
- Lima Beans 69
- Tempeh 66
- Kidney Beans; Green Peas 64
- Black Beans 61
- Peanuts, unsalted 59
- Chickpeas 55
- Peanut Butter, no salt added 51
- Soybeans 48
- Soy Burgers 45
- Soy Yogurt 44
- Split Peas 43
- Soy Milk, fortified 37
- Soy Nuts 30
- Soy Chips or Crisps 28
- Soy Cheese 27
- Tofu Hot Dog 23
- Hummus* 21
- Almond Milk 19
- Sandwich Crackers, Peanut Butter Filling 13
*This score is for commercially prepared hummus, presumably with oil. My hummus recipe contains no oil, and its lowest-ranking ingredient, chickpeas, scores 55, so presumably my hummus would score at least 55.
This blog uses the latest nutritional data available from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), and the FDA (United States Food and Drug Administration), as well as nutritional data provided by food growers and manufacturers about their products. We believe the information on this website to be accurate. However, we are not responsible for typographical or other errors. Nutrition information for recipes is calculated by Living Cookbook based on the ingredients in each recipe based on statistical averages. Nutrition may vary based on methods of preparation, origin and freshness of ingredients, and other factors.
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