When Gerd Bobe, a principal investigator with the Linus Pauling Institute, makes lentils he serves them with a dash of lemon vinegar and sugar.
“It’s the traditional German style,” he says, “and it makes this delicious sweet/tart flavor.” His favorite dish is lentil soup, with a bit of chopped Polish sausage, carrots, onions, and potatoes thrown in.
Bobe hopes more people might share his enthusiasm for the humble, yet nutritionally packed lentil and its legume cousins, such as the bean family: black beans, pinto beans, kidney beans, and chickpeas. “Beans have always been the bridesmaid, never the bride,” he says. This year, could that change? The UN General Assembly recently announced 2016 as the International Year of “Pulses.” Pulses are another name for legume crops harvested as dry seeds, such as beans, peas, and lentils. Back in 2013, the UN singled out quinoa as its nutritional star, and the popularity of the grain skyrocketed.
The nutritional benefits of pulses are numerous, including the following:
- High in fiber (one cup provides half the fiber you need a day)
- Great source of protein and can act as a meat substitute in recipes (recommended in the new Dietary Guidelines)
- Low in calories and fat, and the fat they do have is unsaturated
- Full of important micronutrients, including folate and other B vitamins, as well as magnesium and potassium
- Helpful for weight management, as they leave you feeling satiated
- Naturally low in sugar and sodium (though most canned beans add salt)
- Rich in cancer-fighting phytochemicals
- Substituting legumes for high-sugar or high-fat food is likely to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes
- Gluten free for those with gluten intolerance or sensitivities
What’s more, beans and other legumes are good for soil health because of their ability to fix nitrogen. The bacteria that live on the roots of the legumes will pull nitrogen out of the air and convert it to a form that crops can use for growth.
Pulses come in many different varieties, each kind with a unique phytochemical profile and flavor. To avoid bean boredom, Bobe suggests you think beyond salads and soups and experiment with legumes in baked goods (such as black bean brownies) or make a bean porridge in your rice cooker for breakfast with raisins and curry.
To make dry beans from scratch, you simply soak the beans overnight then drain and cook them for an hour or so, depending on the type. While it’s tempting to skip the soaking step, Bobe advises against it, given that the soak removes certain “anti-nutrients” in legumes that inhibit proper digestion.
Soaking also removes some of the sugars known as oligosaccharides that cause gas. But gas isn’t necessary a bad thing. “Uncomfortable, yes,” says Bobe, “but unhealthy? No.” Gas is a sign of health and means the bacteria in your gut are working properly. It lowers the pH in the large intestine, which helps the good, health-enhancing bacteria thrive. In addition, researchers have found that certain chemicals in gas have cancer prevention properties, meaning at high enough concentrations they can prevent the growth of tumors.
The connection between cancer prevention and legumes is of great interest to Gerd Bobe’s lab at the Linus Pauling Institute. Back in 2006, research found that people who ate more legumes had a reduced risk for recurrence of precancerous colorectal tumors. In collaboration with colleagues from the National Institutes of Health and other researchers, Bobe studies if and how legumes protect against cancer growth and development.
So will pulses have their moment in 2016? Hard to tell, but they may be well worth any media play that they get. “I personally think they’re so much better than quinoa,” says Bobe.
For a comprehensive, peer-reviewed article on the health benefits of beans, please check out the legumes page on our Micronutrient Information Center.