Legumes: The overlooked food group

I love legumes. Sometimes referred to as “dried beans”, legumes includes everything from green peas to chickpeas, lentils to kidney beans and soy, and even peanuts are technically a legume! The thing I like about them the most is how filling they are. Give me a big serve of kidney bean pasta sauce, and I’ll be satisfied for several hours.

The other great thing about legumes is that not only are they  nutrition powerhouses, they’re also generally incredibly cheap.

 

A snapshot of some of the different kinds of legumes out there. Clockwise: Chickpeas, red lentils and green lentils.

A snapshot of some of the different kinds of legumes out there.
Clockwise: Chickpeas, red lentils and green lentils.

 

Here’s a snapshot of some of the nutritional benefits of legumes:

  • Protein
  • Fibre
  • Iron, zinc, and B-group vitamins (including folate)
  • (Most of them are) Low GI. In other words, they give you long-lasting energy. This is important for people with diabetes, as it helps to stabilise your blood sugar levels. There’s also evidence to indicate that it appears to help clear up acne.
  • They’re very filling, which helps you avoid overeating (because of their protein and fibre content, and because they’re low GI)

Nutritionally, legumes fall in both the “meat/eggs” and the “vegetables” food groups. So you’re getting the benefits of both groups, from one food!

 

Other benefits:

People who eat lots of legumes on a regular basis have:

  • A reduced risk of bowel (colon) cancer
  • A reduced risk of  heart disease or stroke

Legumes are also a good choice for people with cholesterol issues.

Substituting meat for legumes where possible, and limiting meat/poultry/fish to 2-3 times per week (or less), is also great for one’s health. The longest lived populations in the world all have mostly plant-based diets, although not necessarily vegetarian. There is plenty of high-quality research to demonstrate the benefits of eating lots of plant foods, and minimal animal foods (although that’s for another post!)

Finally, a diet that doesn’t contain much meat (especially red meat) is far better for our environment.

 

After soaking dried legumes overnight, drain them in a colander and rinse with fresh water.

After soaking dried legumes overnight, drain them in a colander and rinse with fresh water.

 

Bring soaked (dried) legumes to the boil, and then reduce to simmer. The cooking time depends on the type of bean you are cooking. Kidney beans contain haemagglutinin, a toxic compound that causes vomiting and diarrhoea if ingested. Kidney beans need to be boiled (at a rapid boil) for 10 minutes to destroy this compound. Never cook kidney beans in a slow cooker, as the temperature won't get high enough to destroy the compound.

Bring soaked (dried) legumes to the boil, and then reduce to simmer. The cooking time depends on the type of bean you are cooking.
Kidney beans contain haemagglutinin, a toxic compound that causes vomiting and diarrhoea if ingested. Kidney beans need to be boiled (at a rapid boil) for 10 minutes to destroy this compound. Never cook kidney beans in a slow cooker, as the temperature won’t get high enough to destroy the compound.

 

Dried versus canned varieties?

Legumes cooked from dry are slightly higher in nutrients (protein, folate, iron, fibre) than their canned counterparts, but the main difference is the price. I calculated from prices around me in Melbourne that canned legumes are more than 3x the price of cooking them from dry.

The average price for a 400g (14oz, 240g or 8.5oz drained weight) can of chickpeas in metropolitan Australian supermarkets is around $1.00 AUD ($0.85 USD at time of print). You can buy 2kg (4.4lb) of dried chickpeas at an Indian grocer for $5.50. A quick Google search came up with a factor of 2.2 to determine the weight of cooked chickpeas from dried ones.

So, some simple arithmetic:

From a can: 240g cooked for $1.00, or 42 cents per 100g

From dry: 2kg * 2.2 = 4.4kg cooked for $5.50, or 13 cents per 100g

Of course, if you live a busy life, and aren’t quite organised enough to soak beans overnight then cook them for roughly 1.5 hours, canned legumes are still a very good alternative.

At $4.20 AUD per kilogram, canned legumes are still far cheaper than virtually all cuts of meat. (And for the average person, far better for you nutritionally- eating healthily doesn’t have to be expensive!)

If you do buy canned, just remember to drain and rinse them thoroughly in a colander, to remove as much salt as possible. Alternatively, buy no added salt versions if you can.

 

Soy products are also a member of the legume family. Nutritionally, however, these can also fit into the dairy food group (if soy milk is calcium-fortified, and if tofu is set with calcium) Clockwise: Soy beverage, firm calcium-set tofu, fried tofu puffs (also calcium-set) Tofu is often made with magnesium instead of calcium, so read the ingredients list to check.

Soy products are also a member of the legume family. Nutritionally, however, these can also fit into the dairy food group (if soy milk is calcium-fortified, and if tofu is set with calcium)
Clockwise: Soy beverage, firm calcium-set tofu, fried tofu puffs (also calcium-set)
Tofu is often made with magnesium instead of calcium, so read the ingredients list to check.

 

What’s your favourite legume? Got a great recipe tip?

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Coming out of hibernation, and hello Alice Springs!

The last month or two have been pretty full on for me. We’ve moved house, gone to Alice Springs (outback central Australia) on holiday, and I’ve increased my workload. Phew! Now that we’re beginning to settle back in to a new routine, I’m finally starting to feel sane enough to re-friend my blog. I’ve been missing it!

I have a relative who lives in Alice Springs, and I’ve been feeling like it was time that I went up there and paid her a visit. At the same time as spending a lovely week together, the trip turned out to be a great opportunity to experience the incredible landscape of central Australia.

 

Alice Springs from Anzac Hill. The town is surrounded by large rock forms, which are part of the Dreaming (creation story) to local Arrernte people

 

Here’s a snap of me at Ormiston Gorge, a permanent waterhole located west of Alice Springs. Look how much water there is! If you travel west out of Alice Springs, there’s 4 gorges with permanent waterholes, all along the same highway, that you can visit. You can also swim in most of them, but silly us left our bathers back in Alice Springs.

 

Ormiston Gorge

Ormiston Gorge

 

We were surprised to see the amount of plant and animal life around the small city, given that it’s smack bang in the middle of thousands of square kilometres of desert. We were expecting to see nothing but red sand, but in actual fact, Alice Springs is full of trees, and there are several permanent waterholes to the east and west of the city. Apparently there is a lot of underground water, which is replenished when it rains. To be fair, most of the land we saw out of our plane’s window seemed to be empty red sand, so our expectation wasn’t entirely baseless… The river that runs through Alice Springs is a dry riverbed for most of the year, and only flows when it rains.

 

Plant life at Alice Springs Desert Park. Far greener than we were expecting!

Plant life at Alice Springs Desert Park. Far greener than we were expecting!

 

For anyone considering a visit to Alice Springs, I would thoroughly recommend driving out of town to visit some of the gorges, as well as a visit to the Alice Springs Desert Park (an open-air wildlife park, although the plants there are equally interesting). The gorges are especially lovely in the heat- it was noticeably cooler when we were down by the water, compared to when we were walking back to the car. Even in mid-October (spring in southern Australia), the maximum temperature for the week we were there was 38 degrees Celsius (100 Fahrenheit) on most days! We had to chuckle each time a local told us “it’s a good thing you didn’t come in summer!”. In my book, 38 degrees is well and truly summer, no matter what the calendar says!

 

Thorny Devil at Alice Springs Desert Park. According to our guide, they live off ants.

Thorny Devil at Alice Springs Desert Park. According to our guide, they live off ants.

 

One thing that struck me throughout our trip was how much knowledge the first people from this region must have accumulated over the generations, to have been able to live a reasonably comfortable life in the harsh Australian desert for so many thousands of years. This comes off the back of reading two deeply thought-provoking books on pre-European Australian history recently, Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe (Goodreads) and First Footprints by Scott Cane (Goodreads).

Unfortunately, the history we are taught at school only briefly touches on the first 70 000+ years of this land’s history, but then we spend years learning about the last couple of centuries. We are so fortunate, in Australia, to have the world’s oldest living culture here among us. I suppose that learning to turn to ancient accumulated knowledge, while still moving forward into a modern, global future, is a struggle that humanity as a whole is grappling with at the moment.

If you’re interested in a more holistic version of Australian history, I can’t recommend the two books above highly enough. Suffice to say, there is compelling evidence that the first Australians were far more technologically ‘advanced’, pre-European contact, than we are led to believe today.

 

Glen Helen Gorge, thick with rushes

Glen Helen Gorge, thick with rushes

 

I’ll be back in the next few days to post about my favourite food group. Any guesses? Stay tuned!

 

 

– Sonia