Veronika Powell gives the lowdown on these nutritious vegan ingredients.
Pulses are the edible seeds of plants in the legume family and always grow in pods. Beans, lentils, peas and chickpeas are a staple in diets all over the world for example Indian dal, traditional Chinese and Japanese foods using mung, adzuki and soya (edamame) beans, Mexican bean chilli and burritos, Spanish fried beans, African rice and bean dishes, British mushy peas and a myriad of European lentil and pea recipes.
Apart from being very nutritious and super sustainable, pulses also have some splendid effects on our health. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations declared 2016 as the International Year of Pulses in order to increase public awareness of their nutritional benefits and to highlight how sustainable their production is.
Pulses are a great source of protein, complex (healthy) carbohydrates, several B vitamins, vitamin K, calcium, potassium, iron and zinc. They offer an excellent nutrition package and that’s why they are a part of most traditional cuisines across the world.
Thanks to their protein and complex carbohydrates including fibre, they help stabilise blood sugar and, because of that, are great at preventing and managing type 2 diabetes.
Beans and lentils contain natural phenolic compounds and carotenoids that are responsible for their colour but are also powerful antioxidants and have anti-inflammatory properties. Brown, black and red colours mean significantly more of these than pale colours, such as white, yellow and light green. These pigments and their health-protective properties have been linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and even cancer.
Beans, lentils and chickpeas should always be consumed well-cooked, as when raw or undercooked they can cause serious health problems, food poisoning and, in extreme cases, even death. It’s all because they contain natural compounds called lectins, which are toxic, but fortunately cooking destroys those!
There’s a theory that lectins evolved as a defence mechanism in some plants. Animals are able to smell lectins so they avoid plants that contain them. By discovering cooking, humans outsmarted plant evolution and unlocked the world of pulses!
To be precise, cooking doesn’t absolutely destroy lectins but it does reduce the content to a minimum and, so long as your beans and lentils are thoroughly cooked, you’re safe. If, on the other hand, you eat undercooked beans – and kidney beans are particularly dangerous – your body reacts with a prompt, self-preserving reaction – getting rid of everything in your digestive tract as fast as possible. No fun at all!
Is there an exception? Of course… peas! You can eat raw peas as much as you like because it contains such low levels of lectins that it’s not an issue.
Sprouting decreases the lectin content. The longer the duration of sprouting, the more lectins are deactivated. Sprouted pulses can be a part of a healthy diet but be careful because eating beansprouts, sprouted lentils or chickpeas that haven’t had time to sprout long enough may make you sick!
As a rule of thumb, don’t sprout the bigger beans such as kidney, cannellini or butter beans as they contain too much in the way of lectins. Whole or split lentils, chickpeas, mung and adzuki beans are safe to sprout.
Down to business
When it comes to beans and chickpeas, there’s no getting around it – they take a long time to cook so it’s best to soak them first and cook in big batches, freezing what you don’t use. Or, of course, you can simply buy them canned! Their nutritional values are similar whichever option you choose.
There are lots of different types of lentils but when it comes to cooking, there are two. Red (split) lentils cook much faster than any other type and turn mushy. This makes them great for soups, dals and stews, particularly for thickening. All the other lentil types take longer to cook but hold their shape so can be used in recipes where texture is important, such as roasts, burgers or as a mince replacement.
When cooking beans or lentils, don’t add salt or acidic ingredients such as tomatoes or lemon juice because that hardens them and considerably increases the cooking time. It’s best to add these ingredients towards the end of the process.
Peas are a rebel pulse, an exception from the rule and, as such, are best eaten fresh or just briefly cooked (steamed) from frozen. Avoid canned peas as they contain less of the good nutrients. When using frozen peas, you can simply stir it into the cooked meal and let the heat of the dish do the trick.
Most of us have worried at one time or another about the flatulence that beans are supposed to create but there are ways to avoid it. The more often you eat beans, the less likely you are to be bloated because your gut bacteria adapt and help to digest them better. But there are also a few handy tricks, as follows:
- Add a large strip of kombu seaweed to beans when soaking and cooking them, removing it when cooked
- If you use canned beans, make sure you discard the liquid and thoroughly rinse the beans before using (both kombu and rinsing help to get rid of some specific, gas-producing carbohydrates)
- Particular ingredients can also play an important part – adding ginger, fennel and cumin or caraway seeds to the bean dish helps to reduce bloating
- Pulses are amazing foods with lots of great nutritional and health properties, don’t let a bit of gas get between you!
We tend to use pulses in more traditional dishes but you can easily add them to a wide variety of meals, particularly if you want to increase your protein intake. Blend them into thick, creamy sauces or dips; add them to just about any soup, casserole or salad; fry them with spices for a tasty topping to savoury dishes; blend or mash them and use in sweet baking; use them as a replacement for meat in many ‘meaty’ recipes; or roast them for a handy snack.
For lots of traditional and creative recipes see veganrecipeclub.org.uk
Viva!Health is a part of the vegan charity Viva!. Veronika is a campaigner and researcher here. Viva!Health monitors scientific research linking diet to health and provides accurate information on which you can make informed choices about the food you eat. For details, visit vivahealth.org.uk